Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye 2010

2010 was for me a typical vintage. There was plenty of sun and rain, and also plenty of obstacles and challenges. In the end, it was a good year. Not the kind that will be remembered as a blockbuster, more of a classic year. The kind of year that I've learned to respect and appreciate more as I get older.

The day after Christmas we got two feet of snow in my part of Brooklyn. I love the way the neighborhood looks when it's freshly blanketed in snow.

The city wasn't quite able to adequately manage snow removal, however, and there were buses and ambulances abandoned in the streets. Side streets went un-plowed for days and some people were effectively trapped in their homes.

Silly as it may sound, it reminds me a little of how I sometimes feel about my blog. I've been writing it for what feels like a long time, and it's easy to get stuck, to feel trapped, like I have nothing more to offer.

Then I remember that I am not obligated to try to entertain anyone, I am not beholden to any wine business interests, and that I write this blog because it makes me happy. It helps me to advance my own learning and it's my primary creative outlet.

But I won't lie - it feels great that you seem to enjoy reading the blog. So much so that I can fall prey to the temptation to try to entertain you, as opposed to doing what I do best - simply sharing my thoughts about the things I'm learning.

I promise to get back to that in 2011, or to do my best anyway. It shouldn't be too hard at first, as January is shaping up to be the most amazing wine month of my life so far. Several amazing tastings, a lunch and cellar raid that should be completely insane, the first meeting of my Burgundy Wine Club (I'll explain later), and a long awaited trip to Champagne. Thank you so much for reading and for participating on this blog. It's an honor to have you here with me and I hope that my ramblings will continue to be of interest to you in 2011.

And mostly, I hope that your 2010 ends beautifully.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Champagnes, Under $50

It's the time of year for lists of Champagne's greatest hits. Today alone, Eric Asimov of the NY Times published an article reviewing his tasting panel's thoughts on sparkling wines not from Champagne, and also a blog post listing some of his favorite Champagnes.

Well, I want to add my .02 cents. Here are some of my favorite Champagnes that cost $50 or less before sales tax:

Blanc de Blancs.

Pierre Gimonnet Selection Belles Annees Brut Premier Cru, $34, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports. Bright fruit, a graceful style.
Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Brut Blanc de Blancs, $47, Jenny & François Selections. Richer and more robust, from the Aube.

Pinot Noir-heavy wines.

René Geoffroy Empreinte Brut Premier Cru, $48, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports. This is always based on a single vintage, and is usually about 90% Pinot Noir. Fragrant and vivid, well balanced.

Benoît Lahaye Brut Essentiel Grand Cru, $40, Jeffrey Alpert Selections. About 90% Pinot from the village of Bouzy. Simply excellent.

Pinot Meunier-heavy wines.

Françoise Bedel Cuvée Origin’elle Brut, $45, JD Headrick Selections. About 80% Meunier, slow to unwind, quite rich, made in a slightly oxidative style, lots of soil.

Blended Wine.

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Cuvée St Anne, $38, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports. For me, a classic Champagne.

Rosé Wines (Tough, because there are few choices at $50 and under).

Margaine Brut Rosé Premier Cru, $50, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports.

Brut Nature/Non-Dosé Wines.

Raymond Boulard Mailly-Champagne Grand Cru Brut Nature, $43, Imported by Selected Estates of Europe. Complex wine that is more about soil than about fruit, but still feels ripe and delicious.

Tarlant Brut Zero, $45, JD Headrick used to handle Tarlant, and I'm not sure who does now. Spicy and vibrant.

So...what do you think? Suggestions welcome. There is still time for us all to blow some dough on Champagne before the big eves and days arrive.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You be the Sommelier

My food coop sells veal cheeks now. I am not sure who to thank for this, so I will simply thank everyone. Seriously - a few years ago, before the farm-to table and the nose-to-tail movements were still picking up steam, there is no way that cheeks would be part of the offerings in the meat department at most grocery stores.

What to do with veal cheeks? I was thinking braise, shred, and then use as stuffing for ravioli. But I don't have a pasta maker, nor any experience making pasta, so I decided on a braise with some root vegetables. It's gotten very cold here in NYC and it seemed like a comforting thing to eat.

It's a good idea to remove the white connective tissue from the cheeks before cooking. It's not so easy, but it's on only one side of the meat. I did the best I could, but you can see in the photo above that I decided to live with some connective tissue instead of shredding the meat in an attempt to remove it. These are things that professionally trained chefs can do rather easily, I am sure.

I didn't want to use anything in the braise that might obscure the tender veal's flavor. I decided on white wine and a bit of chicken stock for my braising liquid, and nothing more than onion, a whole un-crushed garlic clove, a few black peppercorns, and a bay leaf as seasonings.

I browned the meat very well, poured out most of the fat, and then cooked the finely chopped onion until golden, sprinkling with some salt. Deglazed the pot with some white wine and scraped up all of the browned bits. Added more white wine and less chicken stock, put the veal back in the pot, and brought to a simmer. Then the garlic clove, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Covered with moist parchment paper and the pot lid, into the oven at 300 degrees for an hour. Then I added some parsnip chunks and some red potato halves (red all the way through, not just red skin). Lid and parchment paper back on, another 45 minutes or so in the oven.

You can serve this immediately, but I like braises better on the next day. I removed the veal and the vegetables from the pot, strained the liquid and reduced it, and served it the next evening.

So that's the dish - braised veal cheeks with root vegetables and lemon thyme gremolata. Please, you be the sommelier. What would you serve with this dish? Leave your ideas in the comments and in a few days I'll tell you what we drank and how that worked out.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chateau Simone - Wine From Another Era

Last night I had dinner with a friend and we shared a bottle of 1999 Chateau Simone Palette Rouge, $48, Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections. I absolutely loved the wine and I was still thinking about it this morning. The wine offered so much visceral pleasure, and that's mostly what we discussed last night while drinking it. But today I've been thinking about where the wine is from and when it was made, and how it is so different from most other wines that we are likely to drink today.

Chateau Simone is about 15 hectares of vineyards in and around the village of Meyreuil, less than 10 miles east of Aix-en-Provence, further inland and to the west of Bandol. The same family has been making wine there for over 300 years. Different members of the family, of course - no one can live to be 300 years old. Except vampires. Anyway, this old estate has been making great red, white, and rosé wines for a very long time. The reds are made primarily of Grenache and Mourvèdre, and there are many other grapes added in smaller proportions, like Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and then local varieties such as Muscat Noir, Castet, Manosquin, and Brun-Fourca. If I ever again have cats, they will be named Manosquin and Brun-Fourca, and that is a promise.

If you aren't familiar with Chateau Simone, you might think of the estate as a wise and slightly eccentric uncle who is entirely old-world. These are wines that are highly prized by a small but lovingly devoted following. They are similar in composition to most wines from Châteauneuf-du Pape, which is not really that far away as the crow flies, but from my drinking experience, they don't taste anything like Châteauneuf-du Pape. To me, they don't taste like anything else that I know of.

I want to tell you what I think makes these wines so special, but before that I should tell you that I do not possess many facts about Chateau Simone. I read on the Wine Doctor's site that the wines are aged in foudres for 18 months and then in barrique for a year. Seems plausible, but the wine I drank last night, and all of the Simone wines I've had, taste and feel nothing of barrique. Then again, I've never had a recent vintage - I've drank only a few wines from the late 90's and a few from the mid-late 80's. Was the Wine Doctor writing about today's Chateau Simone, or about Chateau Simone in the early 90's? Perhaps the wines are made differently now - I heard that a father retired and a son or sons took over. But I honestly have no idea whether or not this is true. Another thing - as of a few years ago Robert Chadderdon no longer imports Chateau Simone. It's now a Rosenthal wine.

So now, let me tell you why I think these wines are so special. Most wines that are made today in Provence and in the southern Rhône are very big and extracted wines. Chateau Simone Rouge is made from well-muscled grapes too, but extraction is not a word that comes to mind. Somehow, this wine is a miracle of silky texture and wispy elegance. It can be stunning in its clarity and lavender flower detail, and in the intensity and pungency that emerge from its slender frame. Just think about the alcohol level - the 1999 is 12.5%, and that was a pretty warm and ripe year. There just aren't many wines anymore from this part of the world that are made this way, emphasizing delicacy and detail of expression, texture, and weightlessness. Who makes 12.5% alcohol wines in Provence nowadays?

And what a shame that is! Grenache, Mourvèdre, and these other grapes clearly have the potential to make great wines in a subtle style, and very few estates use them that way. And that number seems to be shrinking. There are still a solid core of Bandol producers making old school wines that although big, are modest in alcohol and quite expressive and detailed - Terrebrune, Pradeaux, Pibarnon, and Tempier come to mind. But wait - didn't things change even at the venerable Domaine Tempier in the past 10 years or so? Will the wines from the early 21st century, when mature, taste as the wines from the 1970's do now? Will the 2007 Chateau Simone Rouge in 8 years taste the way the 1999 did last night? I don't know, but I really hope so.

If you haven't tried a mature Chateau Simone, they are worth searching for, and although rare, bottles turn up here and there if you're looking. They are beautiful and unique, and of another era.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mid-term Cellaring Results

Not too long ago I retrieved some wine from off-site storage, things that I meant to drink at about this point in their lives (and in mine), and also a few things to check in on. The results have not been terribly impressive so far. These are wines that I liked very much several years ago, enough to send several bottles to off-site storage. It's interesting to see the way your own tastes change, to put yourself back in the mindset of making these decisions. Kind of like reading an old journal entry.

Anyway, here are the wines, along with a few notes:

2006 Marcel Lapierre Morgon, $22, Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. This is absolutely and utterly delicious, and I only wish I had socked more away. Now there is an earthy complexity to the nose, although there is still plenty of dark fruit. There is also a pungency to the palate that is truly compelling. Great balance, vibrant acidity, lovely finishing perfume, just great wine - a joy.

2004 Éric Texier Côtes du Rhône-Brézème Domaine de Pergault, $29, Louis/Dressner Selections. I'm glad I have another because I have mixed feelings about the bottle we drank, and I want to drink it again. The nose was lovely and detailed, with lots of black olives and some floral hints, but the wine felt rather dilute on the palate. It never really filled out, although after it had been open for almost 2 hours it did put on a bit of weight. Perhaps I opened this one too young, or maybe I should have drunk it several years ago when I loved it. I have one more and I'm thinking that I should put it away again for another 5 years.

2005 Paul Pernot Beaune Clos du Dessus des Marconnets, $23, Fruit of the Vines Imports. Boy, did I love this wine a few years ago. I still like it fine, but it has not developed any kind of complexity - it's a lovely, fruity wine. There is nothing whatsoever that is exciting about it, though. Live and learn...

2004 Domaine du Closel Savennières Clos du Papillon, $26, Louis/Dressner Selections. There was a time when I loved this wine, LOVED it. And I don't think I was wrong - when it was young, this was a delicious wine. Only a few years later, though, and something is dreadfully wrong. The nose is beeswax and lots of alcohol (14.5%), and that's it. Two hours later, that's it. The palate is a disaster - way too evolved, no definition, not flawed, but unpleasant. So much so that we decided not to drink it. I think that this was good once, and has not aged well. But I have a couple more, so hopefully I'm wrong.

Isn't it interesting how things turn out?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

November Wines: a Laundry List

Here are the wines I drank in November that have not, even in passing, appeared recently on this blog. The "excellent" group consists of wines that are truly memorable, wines that inspire me to seek out and buy these and wines like them. The "excellent" and "very good" groups are wines that I would happily buy at the given price. All other wines, even if I liked them, are not wines that I would buy today given my recent experience with them. Doesn't mean that I think they are bad, just that there are other wines I would prefer to buy with that money. Within each group, I will list the wines in the approximate order of enjoyment.

Excellent Wines
2009 Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp Riesling Senior Faß 6, $24, Mosel Wine Merchant. FANTASTIC. Full disclosure, my friend Dan Melia represents this wine. But forget about Dan, the wine is great.
(2004) David Léclapart Champagne Cuvée l'Apôtre, price and importer unknown. Sick Blanc de Blancs.
2009 Guy Bossard Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Expression de Granite, $18, Kysela Imports. You're crazy if you don't try this wine.
2007 Michel Brégeon Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, $12, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Just a few years and this wine goes from aggressive acid and rocks, to beautiful.

Very Good Wines
1998 Domaine de L'Arlot Nuit St Georges Clos de L'Arlot, price unknown, Michael Skurnik Wines.
2006 Domaine de la Tournelle Ploussard de Monteiller, $24, Jenny & François Selections.
NV Gutierrez Colosia Fino Sherry, $23, Bon Vivant Imports.
2006 Gatti Piero Brachetto d'Acqui, $12 (375 ml), importer unknown.
2007 Binner Saveurs Printanières, $17, Jenny & François Selections.
2009 Günther Steinmetz Riesling trocken, $15 (1 liter), Mosel Wine Merchant.

Good Wines
2000 Auguste Clape Cornas, $50, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.

These, I Had Problems With
2005 Huët Vouvray Pétillant Brut, $26, Robert Chadderdon Selections. Inexpressive.
2009 Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen Bandol Rosé, $19, Moonlight Wines Imports. Pleasant, if not terribly complex wine, and lacking in the acidity that I think this kind of wine needs in order to be successful.
2005 Mark Angeli Anjou Blanc "La Lune," $27, Louis/Dressner Selections. Felt tired and out of balance. I should have drunk this years ago.
2009 Luneau-Papin Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Clos des Allees, $14.50, Louis/Dressner Selections. This vintage is not the racy and mineral driven wine that I remember and love from years like 07.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Two Excellent New Wine Blogs

Looking for something new to read about wine? Something very smart?

Here are two new wine blogs, one called Cellar-Book by Keith Levenberg. Keith used to write The Picky Eater, and this is his new site.

The other is called So You Want to be a Sommelier, and is written by Levi Dalton.

These are two incredibly smart fellows, and their writing is excellent too. If you like wine, and blogs, you should check these out.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Osso Bucco

I've made Osso Bucco before, but with beef shanks, never with veal. The other day prowling the meat case at the coop, I saw three shiny and beautiful veal shanks sitting there, and so I pounced.

Osso Bucco is braised shanks, a humble cut of meat, and yet there is something celebratory about it. It's no more difficult than any other braise, and if you're having trouble thinking of something yummy to serve for the holidays (that might impress your guests), consider Osso Bucco. You can create your own recipe, in a way - you need to brown and then braise the meat, and you should probably add some vegetables. I braised mine in a mixture of chicken stock and fresh squeezed orange juice, and added sliced fennel and carrots. You can use tomato, wine, stock, any kinds of vegetables, whatever. The point is, brown the meat, cook it in the oven low and slow. Here's a bit more on how I did mine, which were pretty darn tasty, if I say so myself.

I usually season braising meats with salt and pepper at least 24 hours before I plan to cook them, but I didn't do that with this veal. I guess I figured that the meat would be rather delicate, and that I didn't want to over-season it. Veal and beef shanks have a white membrane on the outside that holds everything together. You should use kitchen shears to cut through it in a few places, and then some cooking twine to hold them together. I've skipped that step before, and for some reason the meat curls and twists while braising. It's worth using twine.

Dredge the shanks in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and then brown them on all sides in a heavy bottomed braising pot. Remove the meat, pour out the fat from the pot, and pour in a bit of acidic liquid. I used some orange juice. You can use wine, vinegar, whatever. Scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pot, and then add 2-3 cups of liquid - I used a mixture of chicken stock and orange juice. Probably it's best to use veal stock. Good for you if you find veal bones and make veal stock.

Bring the liquid to a boil, add the meat back to the pot, cover with a damp sheet of parchment paper and a tight lid, and into the oven at 300 degrees for an hour. If you want to eat the marrow, turn the meat so the wider end of the bone is facing up.

Then add your vegetables - I used a fennel bulb that I cut into half in slices, and two big carrots. I also added a bay leaf, a few black peppercorns, and a bit of salt. Cover again with damp parchment paper and a tight lid, another hour in the oven, and life should be good. If you're using beef shanks instead of veal, you might add 30 minutes to each cooking segment, by the way.

While the veal was braising with the vegetables, I made a gremolata, a mix of chopped citrus zest, herbs, and garlic. I used orange zest because I used a bunch of oranges for the braising liquid, and I used those wispy fennel tops that look like dill, because I used a fennel bulb in the braise. You could use parsley and lemon zest, whatever you like. I also used just a little bit of garlic, less than a teaspoon, and some salt.

When the veal is as tender as you want it to be, remove it and the vegetables from the pot. Now you decide what you want to do about sauce. I simply turned up the heat on the stove top and cooked down my braising liquid until it was reduced by a bit more than half.

On a bed of rice, with some of the vegetables, the sauce, and topped with gremolata...yum. We spread the marrow on toast too, just because we could. And by the way, although my kids didn't eat it in this form, I shredded some of the leftover meat for them, mixed it with the chopped vegetables and even some gremolata, and they both ate it all up.

What to drink with this dish? I used orange juice and stock, and after reducing like that, there was an unmistakable orange scent to the sauce. I wanted a full bodied white wine, something with plenty of acid to cut through the rich meat, but also something with herbal flavors, maybe, to play with the fennel? Since I have no Italian white wine in the house, I opened a 2005 Domaine du Closel Savennières Clos du Papillon, $33, Louis/Dressner Selections, which worried me with its alcohol and bulk two years ago, and has not improved, I'm sorry to say. If I could go back in time and prepare better, I'd open a Tocai from Friuli, perhaps by i Clivi.

Osso Bucco, baby! Don't even be a little bit scared, because you should definitely make this dish.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Money isn't Everything

Money isn't everything when it comes to Champagne. As with most great wines, there are fantastically expensive bottles and modestly priced bottles, and when thinking about the wines as a group, price does not necessarily indicate quality.

I was reminded of this when thinking about two Champagnes that I had recently, one fantastically expensive and the other more modestly priced. Around the time of my birthday in mid November, a friend took me to a steakhouse in Manhattan to share some interesting old wines over dinner. The first wine we drank was the 1981 Krug Collection, about $700, imported by Moet/Hennessy/Diageo. I am not entirely positive of how Krug Collection is different from the other Krug wines, as even, the finest source of Champagne information, does not discuss this wine in its Krug profile. I believe that Krug Collection wines are simply held back after disgorgement, kept in the cellar for further post-disgorgement aging. But I am not sure.

We decanted the beautifully amber colored wine and gave it a few minutes to compose itself. It was delicious wine, richly perfumed with roast nuts and toffee, and nicely balanced on the palate with rich and somewhat saline inflected nutty flavors. I immensely enjoyed drinking this wine, although if I am honest, I think I enjoyed it more because I was drinking old Krug than because of what was in the glass. The wine was very good, yes, but it was also lacking in the complexity, detail, and energy that I would hope for from such an exalted wine. In the end, a great experience, but I would not say a great wine.

A week or so later BrooklynLady and I opened a bottle she gave to me for my birthday, the 2002 André Clouet Brut Millésimé, $50, Imported by Village Wine Imports. Clouet is considered to be one of the better producers in Bouzy, a village famous for Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims. It started out a bit creamy and kind of simple with round red fruits dominating the palate. It seemed ungrounded, as though there wasn't enough acidity or structure. But 20 minutes later the wine had come together beautifully. This is a wine of harmony, finesse and elegance, of gentle red fruit and zesty citrus peel, a bit of spice too, all on top of a finely chalky floor. But these flavors are subtle and quiet, very much understated. The wine is quite light in body and fine in texture, but it is deeply vinous and of good intensity and length. I think it is a great wine. I took extra pleasure in this wine, by the way, because I had just read Peter Liem's November article entitled Bouzy & Ambonnay: The Great Grand Crus of the Southern Montagne, in which he discussed the similarities and differences among the wines from those villages.

I am not dense enough to suggest that I compared these wines and that Clouet is the better wine, or the better value, or the better anything. I drank them on different nights with different food, in different moods, with different people, and the wines are made differently using grapes from different places. And, I expected much more from one wine than from the other. Who knows, you might drink these wines and have a different experience. The point I am trying to make is not a scientific one.

I am trying to say that you do not have to part with loads of money in order to drink a beautiful bottle of Champagne. I believe that there are truly great Champagnes available (in the NYC market, anyway) for $50 and under. Not wines that are great based on value they offer for their price. I'm talking about great wines in the absolute sense. 2002 André Clouet is one of them.