Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Bordeaux One Night Stand

I know it's a touchy time to talk about Bordeaux, but I'm going for it anyway. I'm not trying to stoke the fires of the debate. I just want to share a recent experience I had with one bottle over a special dinner.

I thought it would be fun to open a bottle of Calon-Ségur with dinner on Valentine's Day. As you know, we don't drink a lot of Bordeaux in our house, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace. It seemed like a perfect match for the beautiful rib eye steaks we treated ourselves to. BrooklynLady feels proud when we drink good wine that's made by women, and Madame Denise Gasqueton makes this wine. But best of all - the label is perfect for Valentine's Day. It features a very sweet heart that surrounds the name Calon-Ségur and St-Estèphe. And yes, I am definitely capable of being that cheesy.

We kept it super simple - just salt and pepper on the steaks, mashed sweet potatoes, salad with a bright tarragon vinegar dressing. I read somewhere that the wines of Calon-Ségur require about 86 years of cellaring before they drink well, so I decanted almost four hours in advance and kept my fingers crossed. We drank a 2004, a vintage that might not need as much time to unwind as say, 2000, 2003, or 2005.

Side note - I cannot keep my fingers out of the cookie jar when decanting wine. I have to go take a sniff and a tiny taste every 45 minutes or so. I mean, how else can you see the evolution of the wine, see WHY you are actually decanting it? Do you do that? Don't lie, you know you do.

Anyway...We were both extremely impressed with this wine, and I say this having no idea whatsoever whether or not this is a spoofulated wine, or if 21 consultants helped to create it, or if Madame Gasqueton took the must, allowed gravity to run the juice into enamel-lined steel tanks and the oak barrels, adding nothing except a bit of SO2. Is this wine "cool" within the Bordeaux world? I have no idea. It was classified as a 3rd Growth back in 1855, if that matters.

2004 Calon-Ségur, St-Estèphe, $40 when I bought futures almost three years ago, and only a few bucks more now. This wine was powerful yet elegant and graceful. Dark cassis tones and lots of herbal character, and some bright red fruit too. A bit of spice for good measure. This stuff is well balanced and delicious and it worked great with our dinner. How nice to try a wine that is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (70% in 2004) and at merely 12.5% alcohol - it is actually refreshing. The one negative thing I can say is this: the wine doesn't have the same energy that I experience in my favorite wines from Burgundy, Beaujolais, or the Loire Valley. It's as if it sits still on the mantel, as opposed to running around with the kids, enjoying the fire. Whatever that means.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

2005 Bourgogne - a Few Favorites

2005 in Burgundy is one of those vintages in which all wines can be great. You hear over and over again that very little sorting was necessary, the fruit was almost uniformly perfect. Grapes were harvested without a lot of rot or other damage, even from plots that qualify only for the regional designation of Bourgogne, Côte de Beaune Villages, or Côte de Nuits Villages. Yes, in 2005, some producers made humble regional wines that will knock your socks off. This means that even though prices are high, it's possible to spend about $25 and to enjoy a stunning bottle.

And it's not only the superstars. Their 2005 Bourgogne will run you more than $25 anyway. There are plenty of solid producers who made fantastic regional wine in 2005. The trick is determining which ones are to your taste. I suggest gathering some buddies and asking everyone to bring a bottle of 05 Bourgogne and have your own tasting - see what you like best. There are many that I have yet to taste at the $25 -30 price point (Truchot, Pillot, de Montille, Barthod, LaFarge, Roty, and so on). But here are three of my favorites so far:

2005 Lignier-Michelot Bourgogne - I last tasted this in September, but I've enjoyed several bottles over several dinners. These grapes are from 50 year old vines in Bon Bâtons, the plot in Chambolle-Musigny that gives forth a couple of solid Bourgognes (Barthod, Rion). Hits full stride after a half hour in the glass. Beautiful blood red color with aromas of cinnamon and maybe cloves to go along with the ripe and juicy cherries. Well balanced with good acidity and an earthy mineral core. Really impressive wine and will probably improve over the next year or two. It might be tough to find at this point, but it is certainly worth looking for.

2005 Domaine des Croix Bourgogne - I read about this one on Burgundy Report and bought a bottle based on that review. I went back for more - just fantastic wine and hard to believe that this is a humble Bourgogne. David Croix makes wine at the famous Maison Camille Giroud - far more expensive wine than that which bears his own name. And some of the grapes that go into Giroud wines are purchased from des Croix plots, but that's neither here nor there...This wine includes juice from Beaune 1er grapes that Croix declassified. It has broad aromas of red and dark fruits, lots of earth, dark flowers and a mineral core. Lovely medium bodied palate echoing the aromas with really persistent flavors on the finish, and a cool minty sensation. It should improve over the next three years or so too. I don't know what else to tell you about this wine - it's just such a great wine, and at about $25, absurd. This one should still be available. In New York, try TriBeCa Wine Merchants.

2005 Sylvie Esmonin Bourgogne - The most complex and mysterious of the three, and my overall favorite so far. I think that the grapes come from a plot called Sylvie in Gevrey-Chambertin, but I might be wrong. This one changed personalities back and forth in the glass, from fruity and concentrated to delicate with an herbal nuance, and back. And forth. Lots of extraction but also very nimble and light, a very dark purple color. Lovely nose of dried rosemary, dried flowers, sandalwood, and mineral and herb flecked earth. Layers of cool dark fruits on the palate and a definite mineral streak. This is broad and heady stuff for a humble regional wine, and it's just delicious. Worth searching for.

So? What about you? Any fabulous 2005 Bourgogne to recommend at under $30?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Friday Night Bubbles

NV Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Réserve Privée, $40 about a year ago. Wine searcher says it's about $60 now. Created in the '80s, the Paillard house is one of the newer houses by Champagne standards. The grapes for the Blanc de Blancs were purchased from growers in the Côte de Blancs, the Mecca of Chardonnay in Champagne. The Paillard style of Blanc de Blancs is soft and fine, achieved by adding less yeast to the bottles for their secondary fermentation.

This bottle was disgorged in December of 2000, and you can smell and taste the older wine here. There are clean and pure aromas of white flowers, roast nuts, and bread in a slightly sherry-like and mineral frame. Very nice nose, quite elegant. A super smooth mouth feel and an intensely mineral palate with biscuit and nut flavors that really power through to the finish, which is again intensely mineral. This works as an aperitif, but in more of an intellectual way. It doesn't have the freshness or precision that I prefer in a Blanc de Blancs. Don't get me wrong - we both really liked this wine. But I think it's better as a food wine. It would pair well with roast turkey or chicken, or with green split pea soup, or even with a firm and nutty cheese like Gruyere.

Friday, February 22, 2008

It's About the People, not the Wine

Last night I met Alice Feiring! I had no idea this was going to happen, but it did. BrooklynLady and I met fellow blogger David the WineBaer and his wife for a glass and who knew? The place I picked to meet sort of sucked (The Monday Room) and we went up to another restaurant called Alta where David and his wife Abby were meeting a friend for dinner. That friend, it turned out, had invited a mutual friend, Alice Feiring (as in squad) to join.

First of all, no matter what else you might hear, The Monday Room does, in fact, suck. It's not the wine that's the problem - the wines are thoughtfully chosen and really interesting. The prices are very high. A half glass costs minimum $8 and usually more. Yeah, the wine list is really good. But still, c'mon - $9 for a half glass, and a small half glass at that, of 2004 white Bandol? $16 for a glass of Cava? That's crazy talk. They wisely omit the prices of the wine on their website. I wouldn't have suggested the spot if I knew the prices, that's for sure.

But in the end the real problem with The Monday Room is the atmosphere. The place is set up to be such a hipster paradise, with thumping music and low lighting and plenty of pretense (men in suits ceremoniously bring your wine glasses to the table on silver trays before a server pours the wine). Impossible to have a conversation cause we couldn't hear each other. Do the folks who like thumping reggae and a style scene at their wine bar care about the interesting and off beat wines on the list?

I guess I shouldn't say that it sucks. If you like to pay way too much for wine in an an environment that prevents you from speaking with your companions, you might like it. And it's in a super cool neighborhood in a beautiful space. And none other than Alice Feiring, who I was destined to meet later that evening, suggested in her piece from a year ago that The Monday Room is the best wine bar in the city. So what do I know?

Alta had an impressive wine list too, but the bottle we selected, with the owner's help, was so disappointing. One of those green and reductive Burgundy 2004's, in this case the Bachelet Côte de Nuits Villages. At least at $54 it didn't feel like we were horse-tied and robbed. But sub-par wine is sub-par wine. Not a great wine night...but it's not always about the wine.

The upshot of all of this is the people - it's about the people, baby! David and his wife Abby were just excellent people and full of interesting talk about their coming move to the west coast. And their pal Lisa was a riot - sarcastic and sincere and smart and fun to talk to. And then there was Alice. Although we were risking pissing off my parents the babysitters again by being late, I insisted upon staying to meet Alice. Imagine that you're a huge baseball fan and you find out that Pedro Martinez is coming to join your party for dinner. You're staying, even if you piss off the baby sitter. Why compare Alice to Pedro, specifically? Because Pedro can stand by his numbers. He did it without the chemicals, on his own, au natural. And even though not everyone agrees with him, there's no denying that he makes a big impact.

I spent 2 minutes and 37 seconds with Alice, but teach of those moments was quite nice, and a thrill for me. And what a taster she is, what a nose! Alice knew before she entered the restaurant, just by sniffing the air in the entry hall, that we were drinking an 04 Côte de Nuits Villages. She didn't know that it was Bachelet, but still, that's pretty impressive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Wee Bit of Bottle Age

It's really amazing the difference a few months can make. Here are a few Loire Valley '05s that I enjoyed when I first tasted them, but that I really loved when drinking them recently. In each case, about 6 months passed between tastes. I always liked the Loire '05s, but this is ridiculous - 2005 in the Loire is just sick, and an amazing value. Don't let the wines get lost amidst the cacophony of 2005 Bordeaux and Burgundy.

2005 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Les Tuffeaux, $26. I purchased a few bottles of this wine based on my impressions at a tasting, so clearly I always liked it. But the first bottle that I opened at home in October of 2007 did not overly impress me. I found it to be a bit fat, to be lacking in balancing acidity. Well, we opened a bottle the other day and let me be the one to tell you that this is excellent wine. It is full bodied and flavorful but also well balanced and perky. On the nose is apple skins, wool, wax, and pure honeysuckle rainwater. It's a beautiful nose, it really pulls you in. There is plenty of residual sugar but the palate is well balanced and very drinkable, the acids so much more prominent than they were in October. There is great energy for an off-dry wine. The finish is surprisingly light and sheer, but the flavors linger. This is really a perfect aperitif wine and I'm buying more.

2005 Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny La Grande Vignolle, $16. Wow, this is some
tobacco-ey, earthy stuff. There is also great fruit here. Beautiful nose of red and dark fruit, tobacco, a bit of cocoa too, and that Saumur-Champigny earthy velvet is in full effect. This has great texture, purity, and length. And I remind you - it cost $16. Very satisfying wine and an excellent companion to roast meat. I'd love to get my hands on the "higher level" wines from Filliatreau, but I haven't seen them in NYC. I might sock away one of my two remaining bottles just to see what happens to it in 6 years.

2005 Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Les Fevettes, $22. This wine was basically closed down the last time I tasted it, in July of 2007. Of the three wines discussed here, this is the most improved and the most impressive. The nose is incredible, with absolutely clean and pure red raspberries (I would say jumping out of the glass, but it's cliché - the raspberries WERE jumping though), dark flowers, and minerally wet soil, with only the tiniest bit of alcohol (14%) poking through. This is a beautiful nose and you can tell that there is still some unwinding to do. The palate echoes the nose and is silky in its rustic country-ness, such a winning combination. There is soil underneath the raspberries and flowers, and it crackles with minerals and life. The finish is clean and pure. Just very impressive and delicious wine, and with a long life ahead of it.

What other glories from 2005 in the Loire Valley await? I'm guessing everything will be great.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Coming Back to 05 Beaujolais

A couple years ago BrooklynLady and I went to a friend's house for dinner and I brought a bottle of 2004 Clos de la Roilette Fleurie Cuvée Tardive. The wine was waaaay too young to drink at that stage but I didn't know that, I thought it was just mediocre wine. And it confused me because I so much enjoyed another Roilette bottle I had a week or two earlier. But the first bottle was not the Cuvée Tardive, it was the "regular" Roilette. I didn't know they were two different wines. The one thing I knew for certain, is that I loved the label. How nice is that racehorse, and how great a choice is the orange/yellow background?

Now I know that Cuvée Tardive is the old vines wine, and that it typically requires more time to unfold. Depending on the vintage, it can age and improve for quite some time. I have not yet tasted the new release, the 2006 vintage, but Lyle at Rockss and Fruit says it's really good.

The thing is, the regular wine is fantastic too. It should also be allowed to mellow in the bottle, though. I found even the ripe and generous 2005 to be a bit out-of-whack when I tasted it about 8 months ago. My last bottle hung out in the wine fridge until recently, as my attempt at Pork Adobo (Filipino national dish of pork stewed in vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, black pepper corns, and soy sauce) bubbled on the stove. The 05 regular wine was just amazing.

2005 Clos de Roilette Fleurie, $18 at Chambers Street Wines. If this were poured blind I would have guessed it to be a solid Bourgogne. It has a beautiful mingling of crushed strawberry fruit and leafy earth, with a cool mineral streak running right down the middle. Lip smacking acidity and great balance - this stuff is dangerously good right now. But I didn't like it anywhere near as much when I tried it a while ago. I should have bought more when it was on the shelves.

I re-tasted another 05 Beaujolais on my daughter's first birthday when the relatives were in town. I've had maybe a half case of the 2005 Descombes Morgon now, $22 at Chambers Street, and each bottle is better than the last. I found the Descombes 2006 Regnie to be more accessible than the 05 Morgon when I was drinking Beaujolais like 3 or 4 times a day, I mean week, during the summer of 07. But these days the Morgon is just incredible, with complex fruit and spice notes, and a great mineral streak. Great floral mouth aromas after swallowing too. Everyone at the table loved it, and no one had a clue that they were drinking Beaujolais. Oh, the horror.

I have two bottles of 2005 Descombes Morgon Vieilles Vignes that are now sleeping in the cellar. I wonder how long should they rest before I open them? That should be exciting. Lots of interesting 2006 Beaujolais is out now too. I'm telling you, there is just far too much interesting wine worth buying these days.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Friday Night Bubbles

NV Domaine André et Mireille Tissot Crémant du Jura, $19 at Chambers Street Wines. This domaine is run in Arbois by Stéphane Tissot, the son of André and Mireille. This is the third Crémant du Jura I've had in the past two months and I am right now firmly of the mind that if I'm not going to drink Champagne, I want to drink Crémant du Jura.

Really? What about Loire sparklers? Well they're very good too, but the Crémant du Jura wines are made from 100% Chardonnay, and if you squint a bit, they are almost like a Blanc de Blancs from Champagne. I've found them as a group to be very focused and precise, chalky, fresh and citrusy, lean, and refreshing. Not approaching the depth of a Blanc de Blancs from Champagne, but great in their own half-the-price-of-Champagne way.

While this one is not my favorite of the three (that would be the Domaine de Montbourgeau), it is still very good wine. The nose is super clean, very fresh, with prominent chalk, pastry dough, and ginger. The palate is surprisingly full and rich with citrus, chalky minerals, and yellow cake. It is not all that focused though, and does not follow through on the promise of the nose - it's missing that cut at the finish. Still, this is satisfying and delicious wine, and I suspect would be better with food than it is as an aperitif.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

By the Glass - Wines that I Don't Like Edition

When I read reviews I always wish for a sense of what the writer doesn't like - I get the fullest sense of their palate that way. But many people only write about the wines they like. For example, Brooklynguy, a blogger I feel particularly close to, hardly ever writes about wines he doesn't like. He really should do that from time to time. If not, a reasonable person might think "Is there anything this guy DOESN'T like? He likes everything. Therefore, nothing is special to him."

Well, take it easy, folks. There are many many many wines that just suck, to my taste. But I just don't consider myself expert enough to sit here and tell you definitively that a wine is bad. Instead, I'll tell you what I've tasted recently that I don't like. You might like these wines - what do I know? In any case, you'll get a more complete sense of my palate.

At a delicious brunch at Deetrane's house he opened a bottle of NV Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs. What an interesting experience it was for me to drink this wine in all of its chemical candied glory. After a steady diet of the grower stuff, this is the first mass market Champs I've had in a while, and with all due respect to the Deetrane (he likes it, and there is an emotional attachment too - this is a special wine for him and his wife), I found it to be a cartoon version of Champagne. Incredibly sweet candied bananas clubbing you over the head, a trio of birds whistling around to signify the daze you're in. My personal mission now is to get Deetrane to try more grower Champs.

I don't dabble too often in Rioja, and the 2001 Palacios de Remondo Rioja Propiedad H. Remondo, $24, is a good example of why I stick to López de Heredia. I liked this wine when I had it years ago in a restaurant so I bought a few bottles. It hasn't been as good at home (maybe it's my cooking?). This time it seemed roasted and pruney, nothing elegant or nuanced about it. Although we had hearty food, it was out of balance and almost overbearing. The blend is 55% Tempranillo and 45% Grenache (yes, I refuse to say Garnacha). For now I stay with López de Heredia when the Rioja mood strikes me.

I believe in miracles, but I still don't anticipate tasting a DRC wine anytime soon. But Aubert de Villaine makes wines under his own name from grapes grown in the Côte Chalonnaise. That is as close as I'm gonna get for now. I drank the 2006 A & P de Villaine Bouzeron, $23, the other night and it did almost nothing for me. Bouzeron is the appellation created to showcase the Aligoté grape. Wines made from Aligoté should be crisp and lean and fresh. This wine was none of those things, even on day 2 with plenty of airtime. Maybe 2006 was no good in the area. I can't imagine that the wine was supposed to be aged - it's Aligoté for goodness sake. Most people throw some Cassis in there and call it a Kir. Anyway, this wine was very uninspiring. Maybe I'm just missing something - this Villaine guy is clearly not playing games.

You know by now how fond I am of Loire Valley wines. I want to make sure that you know that I don't love all of them, even if the producer is hot with all of the cool cat winos and sommeliers. Here is a hipster wine that I just didn't care for. The 2005 Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loir Le Rouge-Gorge, $20, is a wine that I was stunned to find that I didn't like. Bellevière is the amazing vigneron who is bringing Jasnieres and Coteaux du Loir back to greatness. This is natural wine making using traditional grapes, like Pinot D'Aunis for this wine. I have always enjoyed Bellevière's wines. Not this one - it was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Isn't Pinot D'Aunis supposed to be light bodied and redolent of strawberries and flowers, with a dose of black pepper? That's what I've found in the others I tasted. This one had the pepper, but it was very deep and dark and pretty heavy too. At 14% alcohol there was not a lot of elegance going on. Flavors were a touch roasted and the tannins were intrusive. I don't think this was a bad bottle, I think instead that the ripeness of 05 encouraged wine makers to do more with their raw material, and sometimes the resulting wine is out of character.

Alright, I'm not a total curmudgeon. I'm going to open a bottle of Billiot Ros
é Champagne tonight with the BrooklynLady for Valentines Day and I love that wine. I don't hate everything. Happy Valentines Day to you all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Take the "What's Next" Poll

About mid January I put in a "What's Next" feature on the left sidebar of the blog. I thought it would be fun - I like to know what's coming next. It's helped me to be more organized about what I'm writing too.

But it has its downsides. It makes me feel like I have to stick to the schedule and that I shouldn't post something out of turn. It also requires planning ahead and I don't always want to do that.

I wanted to keep it, then to take it down, but now I'm feeling indifferent about it. So I ask you, readers and friends: should I continue to feature "What's Next" on Brooklynguy's blog, or let it swirl down the drain like so much plonky Pinot Grigio?

Please voice your opinion in the poll on the sidebar by the end of Tuesday February 19th, assuming that you care about such trivialities.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Imaginary Wine Vacation in Bandol

The dollar sucks and my daughter is only 1 year old. These are the major issues that make it seem too difficult for BrooklynLady and me to go to France in the next few months. But I have an active imagination and lately I've been thinking about the south of France, Provence in particular. Wouldn't it be great to spend a few days wandering amidst the fields of lavender, biking on narrow roads on cliffs, eating lunch on a terrace by the sea and sipping a beautiful old rosé?

I'll answer for you - yes, it would be nice.

But that ain't happenin' for me anytime soon. So instead we decided to spend a couple of days drinking the wines of Provence, specifically the Bandol appellation. Why Bandol? Wrong weather for rosé, for one. Wintry red wine kind of nights. Bandol is quietly known for making some of the finer red wines in Provence. And Bandol is the only appellation in France, I believe, where the Mourvèdre grape must comprise at least 50% of the wine. Mourvèdre is a late ripening thick skinned variety that does very well in this hot former fishing village, now fancy resort area. It is commonly blended in many southern Rhône wines and in the Languedoc-Roussillon region directly to the west of Provence. But in Bandol, Mourvèdre is the star, and that's unique.

If you look at this map and zoom in one level, you'll see the town of Bandol on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, about 15 KM west of Toulon and maybe 50 KM east of Marseille. This is a hot weather place folks, seaside resort cities abound. This is a place for growing thick-skinned grapes that can withstand high temperatures. In addition to Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Grenache are also widely used, and Syrah and Carignan can be included in smaller amounts, up to 10% individually or up to 15% when they're both included.

Want to learn more about Provence wine - take a look at some of Bert's wonderful posts on Provence on Wine Terroirs. It's the next best thing to visiting the region.

Bandol reds are not really meant for drinking young. Although they can show some nice fruit when young, from what I read, it is with age that they exhibit their true character - deeply pitched and loaded with animal and leather. These are high alcohol wines, which makes sense. The grapes get very ripe in such a hot climate, and fermenting the wine dry means eating up a lot of sugar, creating lots of alcohol.

We roasted a leg of lamb rubbed with Herbs de Provence and went to town tasting four wines. We re-tasted each of them over several days - what, you thought we would polish off 4 bottles between the two of us in one night? This ain't college, pal.

What struck me most was this - the wines have an incredible sense of place, a dusty, hot, clay, rustic, county town sort of feel, and if you can let yourself roll with it, the wines are very romantic. They feel positively out of place in my chilly Brooklyn apartment. They belong in a cottage with lavender fields and garrique outside and raspberry patches and the Mediterranean sea in the distance. They needed food, and didn't do as well on their own.

1999 Galantin Longue Gard, $36. This was all animal fur and brett on the nose when first opened, and in a really serious way - lots of dung happening here. Then some beef blood, some iron, some soft underside of leather belt. The fruit is gone, this is secondary. The palate is earthy and warm with an animal/herbal persistence and a dusty feel to the whole thing. Very funky, very intense, not for the faint of heart. Naturally made and conveys a real sense of place. I'm still not sure whether I liked it or was afraid of it.

2001 Chateau de Pibarnon, $18, half bottle. Altogether different nose. I guessed that there was less Mourvèdre in the blend, and I was dead wrong - 90% Mourvèdre here. Lighter, brighter, lots of raspberries and roasted earth. But with some air time this wine smelled like the panther cage at the Bronx zoo - pheromones all over the place. The palate is berries and cocoa powder and funky earth. In the end, very complex and interesting wine, and at 14%, relatively low in alcohol and drinkable.

2004 Domaine du Gros' Noré, $32. Raspy and rough red raspberry on the nose. Primary fruit still, but framed by wet clay earth. The palate is juicy and red with good acids but lots of alcohol heat too - it's 15% after all. On the third day open, probably a good proxy for cellaring 10 years, the wine has lovely floral and black licorice notes.

2004 Domaine de la Tour du Bon, $29. Great nose, very deep with lavender, ripe plums, and earth. Maybe even some black olives in there, but that could be wishful thinking. Smooth dark berries on the palate and a very dusty finish. This is an awkward teenager.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Friday Night Bubbles

That's right, the BrooklynLady and I begin the weekend, no matter what else is going on, with a bottle of bubbly on Friday night.

This Friday it was NV Jean Milan Grand Cru Carte Blanche, $40 at Prospect Wines.

Chalky minerals on the nose, much more chalky than I remember, followed by cool vanilla pastry dough and white flowers. A broad and enticing nose, really.

A full and rich palate that stars pink grapefruit and biscuits, but a bit sweet and not all that complicated, and not all that focused. A gentle giant that stumbles on itself a little bit, like Moose from Archie comics. Certainly very enjoyable wine, but I definitely prefer the Spéciale Brut from Milan.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

My Foray into Blind ID'ing Wine

Some people can taste a wine blind, knowing nothing about it at all, and are able to identify it. I've heard of people who can do this in incredible detail, down to the vineyard and vintage. I must say, I've never seen this, but I believe that it's true.

Do these people train for this? Can you develop this kind of skill, or is it more of a "you either got it or don't got it" kind of thing?

I decided about 6 months ago that I wanted to out-do these people, the folks who taste blind and confidently declare "this is definitely an Opus One, and the slightly lower concentration makes me think it's an 02. No Doubt about it - Opus One." But I can't beat them at their own game because I don't taste enough wine like that to even play with these people. So I devised a new game, an insidiously challenging one, one that honestly can make you want to cry at times, it's so frustrating.

I have spent the last 6 months privately training myself in the art of blind ID'ing wine, but without tasting it. No, I don't smell it either. I ID the wine without even opening the bottle. I'm talking about wearing a blindfold and merely handling the bottle. I know it sounds weird, but I've become somewhat of an expert, I would humbly assert. It is an art, not a science. Some of it is recognizing the feel of the label, the size and shape of it, the size and shape of the smaller label on the back. Some it more about sensing the wine inside.

Let me share with you the results of my most recent training exercise. This took place in Deetrane's cellar, where there are at least 2,000 wines from all over the world, the bounty of three different wine drinkers, myself included. And remember, this is really difficult, and my success rate is still low, so cut me some slack.

Wine 1 - Bordeaux shaped bottle, smooth glossy label. Felt like a white. I guessed the 2000 Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc. It was an 01 Coutet Sauternes, so that's not too bad.

Wine 2
- Burgundy shaped bottle, deep impression on the bottom, small rectangle shaped label.It felt fruity and rich, like a red wine. I guessed the 2002 Louis Boillot Pommard 1er Cru Les Fremiers. It was a 1999 Beaucastel CdP Blanc. Not really very close on that one.

Wine 3 - Burgundy shaped bottle, seemed kind of wider than most, felt like a white wine, and a minerally wine, something edgy. I guessed the 2004 Louvetrie Muscadet Fief du Breil. I was wrong. Let's just leave it at that - I was wrong, okay?

Wine 4 - Burgundy shaped bottle, this time I was certain it was a white wine, big square label, big label on the back, seemed like a generous and fruity wine, something new world. And it felt like a young wine. I guessed the 2005 Kistler Durell Vineyard. It was, in fact 2005 Kistler, but Dutton Ranch, not Durell. But you can see how I made that mistake.

Wine 5 - Bordeaux shaped bottle. It felt sleek and impressive, a beautiful feel. Majestic, in an old world sort of way. 1st growth, I felt, but not yet mature, a young wine. I went with the 2004 Mouton, after almost going with the 2002 Lafite. It was a flower vase Deetrane gave me as a curve ball.

So as you can see, I need more training. But you surely also agree that there are flashes of talent here. Soon, very soon, I'm going to spring this on know-it-all blind tasters and then they'll be sorry!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Local Lamb with Local Wine

One of my favorite cuts of lamb is the shank, the lower portion of a foreleg. Shanks are almost always braised, and I think represent one of the easiest, yet most impressive dishes you can cook at home. You can get all Middle Eastern if you want with cinnamon sticks, preserved lemons, and olives. But even simply prepared, with no spices other than salt and pepper, maybe a sprig of fresh rosemary, this is delicious comfort food that actually is not at all bad for you (shanks are mostly tough muscle and collagen after you trim the outer fat).

To cook lamb shanks you brown them, remove them from the pot, cook chopped onions and garlic, add an acid (wine or tomatoes work well), stock, the shanks back to the pot, and then cook slowly. That's the basics, the particulars are fun to play with on your own. One thing that I strongly recommend - buy local lamb if at all possible. It tastes fresher and better, more like lamb. And if the lamb is raised without antibiotics or hormones, using sustainable and humane practices...well you get to feel really good about what you eat too. I buy lamb from my farmers market, but when the market is out of season from January - March, my food coop carries lamb from Aberdeen Hill Farms in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. Completely affordable and rosy fleshed tender deliciousness.

Here is the lamb shank technique I recently tried, and it's the one best so far:

1. Trim 4 lamb shanks, leaving a thin outer layer of fat. Rub coarse salt all over the shanks 2 days before cooking. This helps to tenderize the meat. Using a pot you can put in the oven, heat canola or safflower oil to medium/high heat and brown the shanks all over, takes about 10 minutes. Remove them from the pot, pour out fat leaving about 2 tablespoons.

2. Lower the heat to medium and cook finely chopped onions until they're tender and kind of translucent, maybe another 10 minutes.

3. Add 3/4 cup of white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to get up all of the browned bits. And yes - white wine. Use red if you like, but I prefer white because the lamb is rich and I want the richness to come from lamb. That's also why I like vegetable stock in this dish. I should have used a finger lakes white, but didn't have one. I used an old friend from Southwest France instead. Add 2 cups of heated but not boiling vegetable stock. Add one entire head of garlic that you cut in half, or add one large clove finely chopped. I like the whole head cut in half, an idea I got from Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary, Add a couple of canned San Marzano plum tomatoes - two or three, chopped up. Add a few black peppercorns and one whole dried red chili pepper. Add the shanks back to the pot. The liquid should not completely cover the shanks - maybe two thirds of the way up.

4. Bring to a boil, skim off any scum, cover the pot and put in a 325 degree stove for about 90 minutes. Remove the lid of the pot, add two carrots cut into big pieces, and cook for another hour and half. Remove the shanks and the carrots from the pot. Puree the liquid without the rosemary sprig, but with the chili, peppercorns and garlic. Add salt as you like. That's it - you can eat the lamb right now, or better yet, re-heat it the next day. Braised meat almost always tastes better the next day.

BrooklynLady and I re-heated two of the shanks (you'll notice that we did not puree our braising liquid - blenders wake up babies late on a Sunday night) and ate them with an umami-driven dish of Fregola (Sardinian pasta) cooked with mushrooms and broccoli rabe. We decided to have a New York wine with our local lamb.

2002 Castello di Borghese Cabernet Franc Reserve, $32 from the winery. Borghese's vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island used to be owned by Louisa Hargrave, one of the true pioneers of Long Island wine. I got this bottle during a visit to the winery in summer of 2006. This wine was still very young, and really needed a little over two hours to show well. At first it was disjointed with lots of oak barrel and vanilla, alcohol heat, and pronounced drying tannins. But later on there were nice herbal and raspberry aromas, still some vanilla. The palate is more candied than I would like, but they are red berries nonetheless. There is good acidity and a pleasantly coarse tannic structure. This is perfectly good, but not at all inspiring wine. And at $32, a pass without a doubt.

I'm glad we opted to go local on the wine, and I want to love local Cabernet Franc. But there are so many that I prefer from the Loire Valley, and they are literally half the price. Yes - that's my palate and you might feel differently. I'm going to try some more local vino too, this time in the $15-20 range. If you're in the tri-state area and feel like drinking local wine but aren't sure what to get, check it out Lenn's website. It's a great source for New York wine recommendations.

Monday, February 04, 2008

More Terry Theise Grower Champagnes

I was fortunate to be able to attend the Michael Skurnik tasting at TriBeCa Grill in mid January, and amidst the great lineup of German, Austrian, and French wines, there was of course a Terry Theise Champagne section. But these were not just any Champagnes, all were grower Champagnes, wines made by the farmers who tend the wines.

Although there are far more grower/producers than their are big-house Champagne producers, the big houses (Moet, Laurent Perrier, Pol Roger, or Veuve Cliquot, for example) tend to dominate the market in the US. Although I'm not sure that this will change anytime soon, I do think that demand is rising (growing, if you will) for grower Champs in the US. According to Theise in the catalog, grower Champs was about .67% of the US market several years ago, and is now up to almost 2%. I think this will continue to rise, and at a faster clip. Why? Because of the work of folks like Theise and Skurnik, and the other importers and distributors who are making the wines available. But even more so - because at the entry level (the only level at which I've tasted comparatively, to any real degree), the grower wines are just plain better. Much better.

That's a strong statement. But if you taste Veuve or Feuillatte, for example, next to Hebrart and Chartogne-Taillet, for example, you'll see what I mean. The grower wines achieve a personality that the big houses simply cannot - the big houses have numbed the character out of their entry level wines with chemicals and processes meant to create a uniform wine year after year after year, a wine that takes no chances and offers very little, other than the name "Champagne."

So if you're looking at a bottle in the store and you're not already familiar with the producer, how do you know whether or not it is a grower Champagne? Look for the letters 'RM' on the label stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, or grower-maker. There are producers such as Bruno Paillard, Diebolt-Vallois, and Guy Charlemagne, to name a few, who purchase about 5% of the grapes they use in their wines, and therefore they are not entitled to the 'RM' designation. But their wines are made mostly with their own grapes, and they are essentially grower-producers too. So the only real complication here is that some producers should be considered grower-producers, even if they are not entitled to the 'RM' designation. More about this another time - how 'bout those wines from the recent tasting?

I found a lot to love, I must say, from wines that I already know but enjoyed tasting next to each other, to wines that I haven't found on retail shelves. If I had to make a generalization about the wines, it would be this: they are absolutely individual, as are the wines of Burgundy or any other great region. Each producer has their own style. That may sound trite, but many people think of Champagne as one kind of wine, regardless of the name on the label. Not at all the case with these wines.

Following are some notes from the tasting, prices are approximate:

NV Jean Milan Spéciale Brut, $45 - A Blanc de Blancs. I've had Milan's Carte Blanche several times at home and enjoyed it very much. This wine, the Spéciale Brut, is a wine that I've not seen on retail shelves, but I hope that changes. The nose on this is much more complex than that of the Carte Blanche, with flowers and nuts and minerals. Broad and rich on the palate, but somewhat sheer in texture, very elegant, very precise. I liked this wine a whole lot. Won't one of you NYC retailers buy some, so I may follow suit?

NV Varnier-Fannière Brut, $40 - Also a Blanc de Blancs. Never had this at home, but I liked it at other tastings. This time, next to the other wines, it seemed a bit sweet to me. I asked the guy pouring the wines - and here I must tell you, unlike most of the other tastings I go to, the person behind the table at a Skurnik tasting KNOWS the wines, and can discuss them with you, which is such a great thing - and he told me that this version of the wine is made from '03 grapes. That means they are very ripe to begin with. He then told me that the dosage is high in this wine. Hmmm, maybe my Champs palate has benefited from recent exercise. Not to say the wine is bad, cause it's good. It was just sweeter than the others, a matter of taste.

NV Gaston-Chiquet Cuvée de Réserve, $50 - Although it is technically a non-vintage wine, this is made from grapes harvested in 1997 and 1998. That's some pretty old wine in there, for a NV bottling. And the wine is delicious and complex and worth more than you'll pay for it. The nose is deep with honeyed nuts, quinine, and orange peels. The palate is so well balanced, with cooked lemons, pastry dough, nice underlying acidity, and a lovely chalkiness. Excellent wine, maybe my favorite of the tasting.

NV Réne Geoffroy Empriente Brut, $55 - I'm a big fan of Geoffroy's Champs. I love the entry level wine, called Expression, an interesting blend that is mostly Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, with a touch of Chardonnay thrown in for good measure. I have yet to come across this wine in stores, which is such a shame. For about $13 more than the Expression, this is a step up in complexity and richness. This version is all 2003 grapes, and it is brawny and big, but finely chiseled and focused. Rich enough that I might think of pairing with a pork or lamb roast, but finely cut enough to serve as an aperitif with nothing more than a dish of unsalted roast almonds. Beautiful wine.

2000 Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre Brut, $55 - I like Chartogne-Taillet's wines. Even though the entry level wine, the Cuvée St Anne, is not as complex as many others, it is so drinkable, so refreshing and easy to enjoy. Your uncle who says "Champagne is too sweet, it gives me a headache" would enjoy it. I've had mixed experiences with some of the higher level wines, but this one, the Fiacre, was a hit on this day. 60% Chardonnay and the rest Pinot Noir, this had a gorgeous nose of white flowers, I'm talking big Brooklyn Botanic Garden hothouse acacia flowers. Very very floral, if you get my drift. Great balance and purity, with a nice mingling of biscuits, citrus peel, and slightly salty minerals on the palate. Delicious wine. I'll say again, just delicious. Not yet sure if my locals carry this wine.

I hope your interest is piqued, and that you'll take a crack at a grower Champs next time you're in the market for a bubbly. If your local carries one of these wines or producers, well lucky you. Hopefully mine will soon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Sink or Swim with Gruner Veltliner

Think of a great wine region whose wines you have not explored. Piedmont maybe? Burgundy? Bordeaux? Champagne? Now imagine going to a dinner and tasting those wines, but not just any wines - some of the greatest wines that region has to offer. Lots of fun for sure. But as a learning experience it reminds me of being thrown off the dock as a kid. A thrilling sensory experience that stimulates adrenaline production, sharpens the mind and the body. A bit frightening too. A couple of weeks ago I recreated this childhood experience by attending a 2006 Gruner Veltliner dinner at Trestle on Tenth in Manhattan.

Gruner Veltliner is the most heavily planted wine grape in Austria but until pretty recently (in old world wine terms, anyway), around the 1960's I think, Gruner Veltliner was not made to achieve the highest levels of quality. No, instead they were making oceans of thirst slacking cafe wine. So Gruner is a relative new-comer to the fine wine situation. Gruners can be young drinking, crowd pleasing, refreshing wines, and they can be inward and brooding wines that require many years in the cellar to reveal their true charm. And there is a lot of middle ground too.

I have a tiny bit of experience with GruVe, as the cool cats call it, including a tasting at my house about a year ago. But this dinner, this was a whole different story. What I am assuming is most of the range of Austrian Gruner Veltliner was at this tasting, from the racy and lithe Federspiels to the structured and powerful Smaragds. There were wines at this dinner that are basically impossible to get, as there are so few bottles made available in retail. Whatever is allocated then usually gets snapped up by the people with special access - wine buyers at stores, repeat customers who buy every year, that kind of thing.

I'm going to tell you what I learned, and which wines I particularly liked, but you have to promise to take this with a grain of salt because I was thrown off the dock. First, here is a list of the wines, all from what is supposed to be the greatest vintage for GruVe in Austria in a very long time, 2006:

Alzinger Muhlpoint Federspiel
Rudi Pichler Wachauer Federspiel
Hirtzberger Rotes Tor Federspiel
FX Pichler Frauenweingarten Federspiel
Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm
Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz
Salomon Von Stein Reserve
Brundlmayer Loiserberg
Setzer 8000
Holzapfel Achleiten Smaragd
Jamek Achleiten Smaragd
Jager Achleiten Smaragd
Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Smaragd
Rudi Pichler Hochrain Smaragd
Hirtzberger Rotes Tor Smaragd
FX Pichler Kellerberg Smaragd
Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd
Knoll Vinothekfullung Smaragd

I learned that the northeastern part of Austria is where all of the best Gruners seem to originate, from regions called Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal. Federspeil is a classification used in the Wachau for wines of between 11-12.5% alcohol. The name means literally falcon game, or falconry, something that is quite popular in the area. These are the entry level wines for the great GruVe producers, in that they drink well when young. They are lighter wines that can show real elegance and complexity. Wines classified as Smaragd, the name of a local lizard that hangs out all day in the steep slopes of the sunny vineyards must have at least 12.5% alcohol, and are the Grand Cru wines of the Wachau, if there were such a classification. These are wines for long term cellaring.

When I asked some of the folks at the dinner what it is that makes Gruner Veltliner special, this is the reply that stuck with me: "it's the structure. The great ones are like white Burgundies in that they are so well structured, they pack in so much power to go along with the ripe fruit. Cellaring brings out incredible complexity."

I wasn't able to keep notes on the wines because I honestly had no idea what was going on. I just tasted and enjoyed and was completely unbiased, and in that way, some of the other folks at the dinner were curious to hear my reactions to the wines. Nothing external clogging up my senses. In general I enjoyed the Federspiels quite a bit, as they were far more approachable at this stage in their lives. But even if the Smaragds were not as approachable, some of them, even to a GruVe neophyte like me, were obviously amazing wines.

Of the Federspiels, my personal favorite was the Alzinger, which is funny because when it was first poured I thought it smelled like stinky washed rind cheese. It tasted and felt great, but that smell - phew. Re-tasting it later on, the cheese smell was gone, and a salty wet rock floral thing in its place. To me, this wine was more about crystalline purity and texture, and the mineral over the fruit. It paired very well with the house cured gravlox, and should cost around $25.

I really liked the Jamek Achleiten Smaragd, a wine that stood out for me because it was so well balanced - it just worked perfectly with itself. I found myself reaching for it again and again, even after that flight was gone. Not sure about price, but I think it would be about $45.

We tasted several Smaragds that are very difficult to find, from what I understand. These included the Pichlers, both Rudi and FX, the Knoll
Vinothekfullung, and the Hirtzberger Honivogl. I appreciated each of these for their intensity, concentration, and their potential energy - they felt like coiled springs. It was easy to sense the structure of these wines, and easy to imagine them growing and maturing nicely for the next 20 years in a cool cellar. But I do not have the experience to really understand these wines. It would be as if you never tasted an aged Barolo (and I never have) and went to a dinner that featured 10 different mature Barolos. How to make sense of it all?

So it was another wine, a more accessible wine that was my favorite of the night.
The Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Smaragd had that same concentration, structure, and potential energy, but also the immediate pleasure of ripe fruit balanced with great acidity, lots of minerals, and a floral mouth aromas after swallowing. Already very precise and chiseled, with clean and fresh flavors. Maybe this wine is not as exciting as a Knoll or a Pichler to those folks who really know these wines, but I loved it. And at about $58, I just might splurge on a bottle or two to put down for a while. Especially since this wine is actually pretty easy to find.

Stephen Bitterolf, one of the people at the dinner, is a wine buyer at Crush. He posted his notes from the dinner on the Crush website. They are lots of fun to read, and I imagine would be far more interesting than my notes if you already know something about Austrian Gruner Veltliner.