Thursday, March 31, 2011

Further Adventures in Blind Tasting

A lot of people don't like blind tasting, but I enjoy it a lot. The point for me is not to try to guess the wine, although that is fun and definitely a part of the learning experience. The point for me is to remove a very important stimulus from the experience of evaluating wine - knowing what the wine is, and whether or not I'm "supposed" to like it. I like to think that I'm not so superficial that I cannot separate my evaluations about a wine from my preconceived notions about that wine. But still, it's good to check in on these things from time to time.

My favorite way to blind taste is to get together with a group of friends and ask everyone to bring a bottle to serve to the group. The key, obviously, is to gather people who will enjoy the experience of evaluating wines while blind, not people who will view this as a competitive event in which they must guess wines correctly or be embarrassed.

My friend Tista was in town recently and I decided to use his visit as an excuse to gather some friends and have a blind tasting dinner. Everyone brought a bottle to accompany a certain dish and we had a great time talking about the wines. Let me tell you people, as if you didn't know this already - blind tasting is rather humbling. But it can be great fun too if you're with the right people, and I definitely was. I'll share some of the details with you:

Tista brought a wine to serve with vegetable soup and he told us as the bottle was being passed around that the wine is not yet imported to the US. I liked it very much, with its red fruited nose, herbal notes, and its bright energy. I guessed a red grape-based wine from Champagne, probably Bouzy. One taster noted an oxidative note on the nose, which turned out to be rather astute as the wine is the first sparkling wine made by Equipo Navazos, the 2007 Colet Navazos, made from Xarel-lo (one of the Cava grapes) grown in Penedès. So with Bouzy I wasn't really so far off - same continent. But that doesn't matter, as I liked the wine, but I believe I liked it less than I might have if I had known it was an Equipo Navazos wine. It's possible, anyway.

Here was another great moment - I smelled and sipped a red wine that a friend brought to pair with an egg and mushroom custard. The wine smelled wonderful and it was just delicious. It had a vague cinnamon aroma that I associate with carbonic fermentation, and texturally it felt like high quality Beaujolais to me, but one with a little bottle age. There was a prominent tannic feel to the wine, but very fine tannins. All of the sudden it hit me, and I knew what the wine was. 2007 Foillard Morgon Côte de Py, I proudly declared. I beamed as I waited for my friend to reveal the wine, and started thinking about how to be graceful while accepting the amazed congratulation of my friends. "You might have noticed that it is a Bordeaux-shaped bottle," my friend said as he took the bag off of the bottle of 1998 Chateau Simone Palette Rouge. Everyone liked the wine, by the way. It was one that everyone agreed on.

Here was an instructive moment - some one poured a red wine that they brought to pair with slow roasted pork, and it was really a great wine. Lush and deeply fruited, silky and graceful, with a nose that gained in complexity as it opened up in the glass, showing floral and earthy notes. There was a clarity to the flavors, unadorned with any kind of excess. It felt like a mature wine but not an old wine, and I had no idea what it was. Some one said it was a Cabernet Franc. Sounded plausible, but it didn't remind me of the Cabernet Francs that I know from the Loire. Turned out to be the 1983 Opus One (!!!). This is a wine that I NEVER would select from a wine list, auction, or retail shop - not a wine that I would buy. Not that I'd ever tasted one (a taste once, but a newer version). Just based on reputation. This wine honestly was excellent though, and a very generous contribution to our evening.

I didn't get them all wrong, in case you were wondering. A friend brought another wine to pair with vegetable soup and as soon as I smelled it, without even tasting it, I knew that it was Gruner Veltliner, and it had this particular funky vegetal aroma that I associate with Grüner from the Wagram. I still had a modicum of confidence at this point, by the way, as vegetable soup was the first course and I hadn't yet mistaken Simone for Foillard, among other gaffes. Turns out that I was very close - it was the 2007 Ludwig Neumayer Grüner Veltliner Zwirch, from the Traisental. More importantly, while I haven't yet found the Wagram Grüner that I love, I really liked this wine, and it was best as it disappeared. It was pungent and pure and very nicely focused, a well balanced and delicious wine that was perfect with the soup, to which I had added a bit of dill and ground caraway seed.

There were many more wines that evening, many of them very good, I learned a lot, and everyone seemed to have a good time. You should try this sometime, a blind tasting dinner. It's good fun.

Monday, March 28, 2011

López de Heredia Across Five Decades

It is not often that one gets to taste a variety of the older Riojas of López de Heredia, but last week at the David Bowler portfolio tasting I had the distinct pleasure of doing exactly that. Monica Nogues, a López de Heredia ambassador, was pouring wines spanning five decades and I lingered for quite some time.

It's funny, I have an ongoing argument with myself about which López wines I like the most. Originally it was the whites, then for a good chunk of time it was the reds, and the past few months I've been thinking that it's the rosé that dollar for dollar is their best wine. All of the wines poured at this tasting were excellent, but I came away swooning over the white wines. I suppose it's silly to try to choose favorites with wines of this caliber.

I very much enjoyed the newly released 2001 Gravonia and 1993 Tondonia Reserva - these are delicious white wines that show a lot of complexity and are every bit as much of the house style as the older Gran Reservas. The young red reservas didn't move me as much. I keep hoping that the 2000 Tondonia Reserva will take on a little mid-palate depth, but so far it hasn't. The new red Gran Reservas are from the 1991 vintage and I've tasted them several times now and enjoyed them but each time I find them to show more vanilla wood flavors than I am used to, and I think they're a bit young to drink right now.

The old white wines...fantastic, moving, haunting. I particularly loved the 1973 Tondonia Gran Reserva and the 1964 Tondonia Gran Reserva. These are wines of tremendous aromatic complexity and distinction, and they still feel fresh and vibrant. There really is nothing else like them, as far as I know. The '73 was absolutely perfectly balanced and I loved the salted caramel tones and the way they played with the wine's mineral essence. But the '64, this was an absurdly good wine, with a pungently salty nose, like wet sand on the beach. It was fragrant in the mouth too and all the way down the throat. A restore-your-faith-in-wine kind of wine.

Of the reds, I particularly enjoyed the Tondonia Gran Reservas from 1981 and 1980. The '81 had a very strong mineral component that nicely complimented the earthy stewed fruit, and the 1980 was a haunting wine, a real highlight. It's musky perfume and incredibly detailed palate really stayed with me. But again it was the wines from the 1960's that truly knocked me over. The 1968 Tondonia Gran Reserva was a bit shy on the nose at first, but then blossomed with blood orange and floral aromatics, and the wine was so fresh and expansive on the palate, so well structured and gentle.

I had a little López de Heredia revelation with the 1964 Tondonia Gran Reserva. I will admit that as much as I love the wines, I've never understood them in terms of terroir. It's not that I doubt them in this way, but I've understood the wines in terms of the style of wine making. I just don't know much about Rioja, I guess. But when drinking this wine, the 1964, I finally got it (I think). The thing is, the wine smelled exactly like the white wine from 1964! The nose showed the same pungent salty beach sand aromatics, there was no mistaking it. Does it usually take 48 years for the whites and the reds to converge aromatically? Is this the essence of the Tondonia terroir, this marine salted caramel package of aromas? I think I should probably drink these wines again to further investigate these issues, you know, in the name of science.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Champagne News

This time of year there are a load of trade tastings, and even if like me, you only go to a few of them, you hear things. Some Champagne news to share with you, some of it I can directly confirm, some rumor:

Frank Pascal's wines are now available in the United States. The Dressner team (now distributed in NY by David Bowler) is importing the entire lineup, and let me tell you - this is exciting news.

Isabelle and Franck Pascal, and their name tags.

Vineyard work is thoughtful and very conscientious, and fully converted to biodynamic farming since 2002. The estate is located in the village of Baslieux-sur-Châtillon, in the part of the Marne Valley where Meunier does very well in the heavy clay soils. I cannot say that I have sufficient experience drinking these wines in order to give you a detailed summary, but I can tell you that they are clean and pure and extremely well made wines, wines that showcase the potential of Meunier when it is done right - dark fruit, expansive and broad, earthy. And in Pascal's hands these wines achieve a freshness and ripeness that allows the dosage to be quite low, and the wines still feel perfectly balanced.

The "entry level" wine is called Sagessse Brut Nature. It is almost a Blanc de Noirs - 57% Meunier, 38% Pinot, and 5% Chardonnay. The current release is based on the lovely 2006 vintage, and it feels substantial and ripe, and entirely under control, very fresh. At about $60 it is a bit more expensive than some entry level wines, but it is a very high quality wine that will delight the red grape Champagne lovers out there.

Cuvée Tolérance Brut Rosé is a truly lovely rosé of Champagne, the first Pascal wine that I tried. This wine is Sagesse but with the addition of Pascal's red still wine. It is absolutely delicious, and it doesn't smell or taste anything like Sagesse - as Franck Pascal said, " The addition of still red wine really changes the character of Sagesse." At about $65, this is a very good value in rosé. There are a few vintage wines and I cannot talk intelligently about them because I've had them only at tastings. My favorite so far is the exquisite 2004 Quinte Essence Brut, made of 60% Pinot, 25% Meunier, and 15% Chardonnay from vineyards in Belval-sous-Châtillon (if I understood correctly). All of the wines were very good, but this one stood out to me because of its precision and harmony, the elegance amidst the intensity of its flavors. At about $85 we're into vintage Champagne expensive territory, but here you're definitely getting your money's worth, in my opinion.

And I must mention the fact that team Dressner has wisely decided to bring in the still red wine, the Franck Pascal Coteaux Champenois Confiance. There won't be much of it and it will cost something like $70 a bottle. But Coteaux Champenois can be as beautifully perfumed, elegant, and hauntingly delicious as a lot of expensive Burgundy wine. If you think of this as a 1er Cru from a great producer, then $70 is not very expensive at all. There hasn't been a lot of Coteaux Champenois on the market and I'm very happy that there will now be this one. I've only tasted it, but I liked it very much. This release is mostly from the fantastic 2008 vintage, the balance is 2007. There is such brightness and energy, highly perfumed black currant and blackberry fruit, the texture is rich with the pulp of tiny berries, and the pungent mineral finish really lingers.

Other Champagne news:

--The Dressner team is now bringing in the interesting and delicious Champagnes of Francis Boulard. I think these are great wines and hopefully they will be easier to find on retail shelves now. They are very reasonably priced too.

--I hear that Marie-Noëlle Ledru's fantastic Coteaux Champenois will soon be available in New York. Charlie Woods who created Bonhomie Wine Selections tells me that he is bringing in 3 cases of the 2004 vintage sometime this year.

That's right...3 cases. 36 bottles of this wine will be available in New York. He says that the restaurant Corton has dibs on an entire case, but that the remaining 24 bottles will be allocated as widely as possible. My friends, this is a wine that you must find and purchase if you are even a little bit interested in Pinot Noir or Coteaux Champenois. Ask your favorite shop to buy the wine, and I hope you can get a bottle. I think I have dibs on one, and if I don't, I sincerely advise Charlie, his family, friends, and acquaintances to watch their step around me.

--I hear that Gatinois' Coteaux Champenois is now going to be available through Polaner. I've never tasted it and I don't know the price, but this producer has some of the most prime plots in Grand Cru Aÿ, and their Champagnes are so good, why shouldn't the still wine be great? Again, it's cool that we consumers will have the opportunity to try more still red wine from Champagne, a style of wine that I honestly think will interest many a Burgundy lover.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

You be the Sommelier

On my 18th birthday my parents gave me a hand hammered wok. All these years later I still use it constantly, and it's turned out to be one of the best gifts I've ever been given.

Fried rice is a quick and easy dish for which the wok is vital. About a year ago I discovered that I can "hide" things like spinach and cabbage in fried rice, and my kids will happily eat it. Fried rice is a great vehicle for leftovers, and seriously, what's not to like? There are authentic versions from all over Asia, and there are the versions that come from places like my house, in which the same basic techniques are used but the ingredients are whatever I have leftover from the day before.

On this day I had some leftover steak. Some chopped onion, carrot, and an egg - that's plenty to make a nice fried rice. It would have been better if I had a scallion or some ginger, but those are the breaks. Here's one thing I can tell you about wok cooking: heat the wok without any oil in it, for longer than seems reasonable. We cannot achieve restaurant heat using our domestic stoves, so highest flame for a few minutes must suffice. Then a bit of oil, a swirl, and more heat. Use canola, safflower, corn, or something that won't smoke under high heat.

The onions first, and then things like ginger, if you're using it. The carrots next, especially if you want them to be cooked enough so that your two-year old can chew them easily. Then the leftover cooked rice, and really toss it well to separate the grains. Then the meat and the egg, tossing constantly. I seasoned here with a bit of Chinkiang vinegar and soy sauce, et voila.

So that's the dish - fried rice with beef and egg. 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 share what I drank and whether or not it was a good match.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Afternoon of Grand Cru Chablis

The other day I had the opportunity to taste wines representing all 7 of the Grand Cru climats of Chablis, something that I had never before done in one sitting. The Union des Grand Crus de Chablis put on a tasting at The Modern, and 13 producers were in attendance pouring their Grand Cru wines. It was a nice opportunity to explore some producers who are new to me, and a great opportunity to try to learn something about the tastes of the different Grand Cru climats. The Wine Doctor has a nice page that describes these vineyards, by the way.

The producers mostly poured their wines from the 2009 vintage, and 2009 is not a vintage that will be celebrated for its clarity and expression of terroir. This is a vintage of ripe fruit, one that appeals in the same way that 2005 appeals - the wines are delicious and perhaps will last a very long time. But as Didier Séguier, wine maker at Domaine William Fèvre put it, "2009 is very good and everyone will like the wines. 2007 and 2008, these are vintages for connoisseurs. They are more typical of Chablis." In other words, it is not as easy to learn about Chablis terroir by drinking 2009 wines as it would be to learn by drinking 2007 or 2008 wines.

The youth and ripeness of 2009 notwithstanding, I did learn a little bit about Grand Cru Chablis terroir. I also learned about several producers whose wines I really liked, and would consider buying for my cellar.

I began by tasting the 2007, 2007, and 2009 Domaine Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses. Yes, they are related - Nathalie told me that her grandfather and one of the Fèvre's grandfathers (William's?) were brothers. These wines showcased the incredible differences between vintages like 07 and 08, and vintages like 09. The 2009 was a very big wine, round and lush, highly perfumed. The 08 was very good, but a little closed, while the 2007 was gorgeous, full of iodine inflected white fruit and stone, racy and energetic, just excellent.

Didier Séguier and a colleague.

Then I tasted five of Domaine William Fèvre's Grand Cru wines from 2009, along with one from 2008. They were all quite good, although all showed very young. My favorite on this day was Valmur as it was a bit leaner, but it also felt very substantial, with lots of dry extract. I asked Didier Séguier which of his 2009 Grand Crus he feels is the most terroir expressive, and he said Valmur and Côte Bougros. The 2008 Les Preuses, by the way, was very intense with pungent marine and fruit aromas, and great body and balance. Didier told me that he continues to experiment with biodynamic farming, devoting one hectare in both Les Clos and Les Preuses, and that today he organically farms every one of his Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards.

François Servin holding the delicious 2008 Les Preuses.

I really liked the wines of Domaine Servin, a producer I had never heard of. Wine maker François Servin's wines impressed me with their energy and lean muscularity - power without weight. 2009 Les Clos and Bougros, and 2008 Blanchot and Les Preuses were all very promising wines, the 2009's perhaps more appealing to me than any other 2009's that I tasted on this day, as they were able to maintain a striking purity and definition, in addition to smelling and tasting great.

François Servin brought along a special treat with him, a bottle of his 1999 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos. This wine was an interesting choice in that I believe 1999 would be more similar in climate to 2009 than to 2007 or 2008, so we had an opportunity to imagine what the 2009 Les Clos might become in 12 years. The wine was a true pleasure, mature and gentle, the marine influence prominent, and also the sweet white floral scents that wafted in and out, surrounding the very stony fruit. Perfectly balanced, great texture, a wine to covet. Maybe Domaine Servin is very well known in the US and I'm just ignorant, but if you don't know the wines, they are imported by Weygandt Selections.

Anne Moreau discussing her wine.

I also liked the wines of Domaine Louis Moreau, another Weygandt selection. Anne Moreau, wife of wine maker Louis Moreau, poured and talked about the wines. As with Servin's wines, these 2009s were delicious and ripe but also already showing quite differently from one another, expressing their individual terroir. They were all very good, but my favorite was again Valmur, an elegant and complete wine whose ripe white fruit is vividly stony and touched with iodine. The 2009 Les Clos made from 50 year old vines also wasn't bad.

There were other wines that moved me - the 2001 Gérard Tremblay Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir was pungently marine and the essence of Chablis. Domaine Drouhin Vaudon (one of the four Drouhin siblings) poured Les Clos and Bougros from 2008, both very impressive, the Bougros particularly expressive and enchanting. But the producers whose complete lineups impressed me the most were both of the Fèvre domaines, Domaine Servin and Domaine Louis Moreau. And Valmur...this is a wine that I clearly have to explore further.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Mid-term Cellaring Results

In the past few weeks I had the chance to enjoy a few wines from the cellar, things that are not by any means at peak maturity, but maybe approaching middle age. These are wines that I know and love, and the results were all good. A few notes:

1997 López de Heredia Rioja Rosado Viña Tondonia Gran Riserva, $25, Polaner Imports. A good buddy brought this over not too long ago and it was a great reminder of why it's smart to save a bottle or two of this amazing rosé. It's always so delicious when released that it's hard, I know, but you will be well rewarded. The idea, as I've heard it, is that the winery releases this wine when they feel it's ready to drink. The current vintage is 2000, for example (and so far it is my favorite since 1995). But the wine does improve with further cellaring. This bottle was more delicate than I remember the wine a few years ago, the aromas more precise and elegant, the mid-palate that much more detailed. Seems to have shed some weight, but there is even more intensity. Now please give me strength regarding the wonderful 2000's.

2006 Bernard Baudry Chinon Cuvée Domaine, $18, Louis/Dressner Selections. Is Cuv
ée Domaine the best little red wine on the planet? Maybe so, maybe so. In this vintage Baudry did not make Les Grezeaux, one of his top cuvées, and some of that juice went into this wine. This was my last bottle, sadly, and it was superb. The aromas could not possibly be more clear and detailed, with tobacco leaf, gravelly earth, and cooling dark fruit. The palate too - so fresh and clean, such great balance, so classy. This wine is always good and I think this particular vintage is great. My friend took the remaining half bottle with him and he said it continued to be delicious for days.

2007 Foillard Morgon Côte de Py, $29, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. In such a great place. There is still a lot of fruit, but some of it has taken on a secondary stewed nature, and there is an intensity to the midpalate, a certain kind of grip, that comes with a little bit of maturity. Perfectly balanced, beautifully textured, strikingly harmonious - beautiful wine. Yes, there is lots of room for further development, but if you have multiple bottles you could do worse than to drink one of these soon.

2007 Gilbert Picq Chablis Vieilles Vignes, $23, Polaner Imports. I've loved this wine from the beginning and it just keeps getting better. To me, Picq's Vieilles Vignes is one of the very best villages Chablis out there, and when you consider price, it might be the best. This wine is ripe in 2007 but it is also very much expressive of place, with with distinct iodine and seashell aromas encircling the bright green fruit. It actually might be closing down now, as this (my last) bottle didn't show very well on day 1. It was awkward and inexpressive, disappointing. But the next day it was fantastic, the intensity and purity of the flavors really shining. There is a gentle, slightly mature, old vines grip on the midpalate that makes the wine texturally satisfying too.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lamb Noodles and Mature Burgundy...Who Knew?

One of the things that I love about my old friend Deetrane is that he never stands on ceremony regarding wine. If he has a special bottle that he wants to share with some one, he finds a way to do that, even if the setting is not one that would typically call for a special bottle.

The other day Deetrane and I went to Flushing's Chinatown for lunch. We went to this lamb noodles place that I love. Even within the realm of rickety Chinatown noodle parlors, this place is not fancy. It's way at the back of the narrow Golden Mall on Main Street. Here is a link to an interactive feature from the NY Times that shows the area along with a few great eating options. The Golden Mall is on the map, but not for lamb noodles. Honestly, go for the lamb noodles.

We sat down with our wine-scented shredded potato salad and steaming bowls of long-simmered milky lamb broth and hand pulled broad noodles topped with chunks of lamb and fresh herbs. I like a little Chinkiang vinegar and roasted red chili paste in there, but just a bit. I was just digging in when Deetrane said "Do you have a wine key?" I did, in fact. Who goes anywhere without a wine key?

Deetrane recently bought a bottle of 1995 Domaine Forey Nuits-St-George 1er Cru Les Perrières, Rosenthal Wine Imports, and he wanted to drink it with me. Lucky me! "Really, out of styrofoam cups with spicy lamb noodles," I said. "I would be tempted to build a dinner around that wine." Deetrane is less concerned about how the wine is enjoyed than he is about with whom it is enjoyed. "I want to drink this with you," he said, "and here we are."

So we drank it and it was great, really great. Les Perrières is a 1er Cru just north of the Les Saint-Georges/Les Vaucrains/Les Cailles cluster in the southern part of the Nuits-St-Georges. The wine was very savory with an almost brothy sense (or was that from the soup?) to the red and orange fruit, which felt fully resolved, and showed a bit of earthy rusticity on the finish that reminded me of where this wine is from. Still good structure and good acidity, very well balanced. The perfume was really lovely, with a smoky and earthy nuance that lingered on the finish. Forey's style might be thought of as opposite to something like Fourrier's, in that Forey racks his wines several times during elevage, perhaps even stirs the lees a bit. I'm not sure if this was part of the program back in 1995, but based on the richer texture and character of the wine, I'm guessing it was. It was delicious wine, from what I would call an under appreciated vintage.

And it really goes to show that styrofoam cups, spicy food, cramped quarters, ...none of these things can begin to dim the pleasure of sharing a great bottle with a good friend.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jenny and François, Spring 2011

I stopped into the Jenny and François spring portfolio tasting the other day to taste some of the new releases. Check out their new website, by the way - it's a million times better now. Jenny and François is no longer a small portfolio of natural wines, it's gotten a bit bigger. They have some real gems, leaders in their appellations, like Lassaigne in Champagne, Binner in the Alsace, and Tournelle in the Jura. They have plenty of good producers making reasonably priced wines in the Loire, the Languedoc, the Rhône, and elsewhere. It's a portfolio to get to know, if you haven't already.

When I go to these things, which I honestly don't often do anymore, I no longer try to taste everything. It's too hard to get a real sense of the wines when you quickly taste 80 of them, especially amidst the cacophony of an industry tasting. Now I instead go in with an idea of the specific producers I want to check in on, and basically leave it at that.

I tasted the new releases from Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, the excellent producer in Montgueux. Montgueux is a small village near Troyes, south of the Côte des Blancs and northeast of the Aube. Because it is further south than the villages of the Côte des Blancs, and because the soils on the hill of Montgueux have a lot of clay in addition to the chalk, the wines show more richness and overt ripeness than do the typical Blanc de Blancs of the Côte des Blancs. Lassaigne is the the greatest producer in Montgueux and the wines are always delicious, well balanced, and very expressive of place. These wines are worth a special search.

The new version of NV Les Vignes de Montgueux Brut Blanc de Blancs, about $55, is excellent. Lassaigne uses a code that is stamped onto his labels, and you really have to look for it because it's hard to see, but 070409, for example, means bottled in 07 (so base year 06), and disgorged in 09 (in April, I believe). I forgot to look at the code when tasting this wine and so cannot tell you if it is based o the 07 or 08 vintage. It was excellent wine and it's elegant richness, and the sense of completeness it exuded leads me to guess that it is based on the superb 2008 vintage. But maybe it's from the more difficult 2007 and Lassaigne just rocked it anyway.

The NV Cuvée Le Cotet Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, about $80, is an entirely different wine made from old vines on an east-facing slope with barely 10 centimeters of topsoil covering the chalk. It is a lithe and sinewy wine, very intense, and anlo graceful. The new release which I believe is based on 2007 was too closed to really evaluate when I got to it, but I bet it's pretty good wine.

I was thrilled to see that Jenny and François are bringing in Lassaigne's rosé, the NV Cuvee Rose de Montgueux, about $75. I think this version is based on 2007 and it is a blended rosé made with 20% of still Pinot Noir. This was my first taste of Lassaigne's rosé and I thought it was delicious, with understated red fruit aromatics, fruit and mineral on the palate, good tense acidity, and a lovely texture. I wanted to sit down and drink a whole glass (or two).

As I said before, I didn't taste everything - I now realize that when I do that I understand nothing. I tasted none of the Jenny and François Languedoc wines, almost none of the Rhône wines, none of their interesting Bordeaux selections, nothing from Italy, not one of Tony Coturri's California wines, etc. But I did taste 20-25 wines and here are a few things that really impressed me:

2009 Domaine des Sablonnettes Vin de Table (Loire) Le Bon P'tit Diable, not more than $17. This is ripe but controlled and perfectly balanced, absolutely drinkable Cabernet Franc. One of those wines that will please everyone.

2007 Domaine Oudin Chablis Les Serres, not more than $27. Leaner and more elegant than the 2006, which was also very good. This is Chablis for the Chablis lover - full of iodine and marine aromas and flavors. A very solid producer.

2008 Comptoirs de Magdala Vin de Table (Provence) La Chance, not more than $20. Funny, I didn't love this wine when it was part of the inexpensive Provence red blind tasting panel I did back in April, but I liked it very much on this day. Good fruit, earth, Provence herbs, balance, a bit of grip, and delicious.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Spaghetti with Meatballs and a Delicious Chianti

Spaghetti with meatballs. For many of us, one of the ultimate comfort foods. Not so much for me, as I haven't eaten this dish with any regularity since my mom made it for us when I was a kid. But maybe that's one of the things that makes it comfort food - it triggers memories of childhood.

My mother is quite good at many things, but she'll be the first to tell you that cooking is not one of them. Her meatballs were tasty, but they would be unrecognizable to any Italian mother or grandmother - they were probably just ground meat, perhaps a little salt. The meatballs that I now love, the kind you'll find at good red sauce joints, these are an entirely different matter. A great meatball should be light in body, texturally smooth, and well seasoned.

I'm sure there are as many recipes for meatballs as there are for pizza and I make no claim to having the best one, or any sort of secret, or anything like that. I have, however, discovered after many attempts, a method for making a pretty darn good meatball. Here's what I'm talking about, and bear with me through the ingredients. I'll explain later:

-1 pound ground turkey, but dark and white meat, not white meat turkey.
-1 quarter cup dried bread crumbs
-A little more than a quarter cup of fresh bread crumbs.
-1 large egg, beaten
-As much finely chopped parsley as you think is right.
-More finely grated Parmesan than you think is reasonable. Keep going. More.
-Salt. a teaspoon, maybe?
-Freshly ground black pepper.
-A bit of dried oregano, if you like.
-A bit of grated nutmeg.
-A little more than a quarter cup of warm water.

I've tried beef, pork, veal, and turkey in various permutations and never had results as good as with ground turkey. But it has to be good turkey, and it has to have a decent amount of dark meat in there. The fresh breadcrumbs are also key - they keep the meatballs light. The Parmesan, honestly, just put a lot in there. It provides umami, texture, and just tastes good. And lastly, the water. I kept getting these meatballs that tasted good but were completely wrong, way too dense, until I read somewhere that you must add warm water right before mixing everything together. Don't over-mix, and use a fork and your hands - gently. The act of shaping the meatballs will be part of the mixing too.

You're going to get about 6 meatballs here if you make them about 2 inches in diameter, a little more maybe. Brown the meatballs on at least two sides in a hot heavy-bottomed pan. Transfer them to a plate, dump out the oil, add a bit more oil, lower the heat, and fry about two tablespoons of finely chopped onion. There is apparently a big debate about whether to use garlic or onion in tomato sauce - Jeremy Parzen wrote about this recently (although I cannot locate the actual post). For me, it's onions, and only a little bit. Add a can of high quality Italian plum tomatoes (I like San Marzano tomatoes, and I like them peeled and whole because I like to crush them by hand, it just feels good). Add salt and bring to a simmer, then add the meatballs and any juices from the plate. Simmer them for 15-20 minutes and then turn them over so the other side will be submerged in the sauce, and simmer for another 20 minutes. They should be cooked through, but you take one out and test it to make sure.

I like to serve these by cutting them in half, as they're easier to eat that way and they look pretty when you shower them with more Parmesan cheese.

The other night a good pal came over for dinner and I told him that among other things, we'd be eating spaghetti with meatballs. He brought a wine that I'd never heard of, the 2006 Castell'in Villa Chianti Classico, Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates. It should cost something like $25. The wine was immediately attractive to me in that it was very pure and detailed, unadorned with wood or overly extracted fruit. It smelled and tasted like what I know to be Sangiovese from Tuscany. The nose is lovely cherry fruit and also a complex leathery note, and the wine is perfectly balanced, very fresh, and entirely delicious. It is 100% Sangiovese and from what I understand, a traditionally made wine, but in poking around the interweb, I am not able to learn all that much about what they're doing at Castell'in Villa. Please share any of your Castell'in Villa knowledge in the comments.

We drank a little bit of many wines that evening and there was a solid half bottle left over. The next day I took a sip and it was still delicious, although no different from the previous night. But when another friend and I drank the rest of the bottle on day 4, also with spaghetti and meatballs, the wine developed a nice herbal character that I really liked. It was a fantastic wine, something that I will seek out and buy myself without question. And this is a good thing, because as you know from reading this blog, I just don't drink enough Italian wine. Now I have a good Chianti I can buy.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Comparing the 2008 and 2009 Vintages in Burgundy via Domaine Fourrier

Following my interview with Jean-Marie Fourrier, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend a Domaine Fourrier tasting that featured several wines from the 2008 and 2009 vintages.

Fourrier's importer Neal Rosenthal organized the event. It was great on several levels - first of all, Fourrier's wines are fascinatingly terroir expressive and it is so instructive to taste them next to each other. Equally instructive is tasting the same wines from 2008 and 2009. The vintages couldn't be more different in character and it was my first chance to compare them in this way (my first bottles, period, from 2009).

If you are categorizing, I think that 2009 is a vintage that can be grouped with 2005 - growers achieved high levels of ripeness and did so without having to sort out a lot of grapes. Not as perfect as 2005, but this is a vintage of big wines that should age well. 2008, on the other hand, was very difficult, without prolonged periods of good weather during the growing season. Many producers had trouble achieving adequate ripeness and I assume that many wines are chaptalized in 2008. Perhaps if phenolic ripeness is not as high as one would hope for, there may be some wines with a green taste to the tannins, or perhaps the wines will not be as long lived. I might include 2008 in the same category as 2007, or 2004 - classic vintages, vintages with the typical array of problems.

Will the 2009's be as detailed and expressive of specific terroir as Burgundy lovers want them to be? Will the 2008's be delicious wines that offer the pleasure that Burgundy lovers want? I have no idea yet, but this tasting helped me form some initial ideas.

Jean-Marie Fourrier had a few things to say as we tasted, and I'll share some of this with you before sharing my notes on the wines. He said that 09 is similar to 1999, and that it is his second favorite vintage behind 1999. He said that there were "very specific aromas above each vat." Regarding his two villages wines, he said they are meant to show variation in terroir at the villages level. Aux Echézeaux at the southern border of Gevrey where it meets Morey Saint Denis is "very Chambolle-like in its purity and body, very different from the wines from the northern border of Gevrey." Fourrier's other villages wine comes from a vineyard called Champerrier in Brochon. Fourrier said that Aux Echézeaux is better with white meats and his Gevrey-Chambertin Vieille Vignes is better with dark meat.

2009 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Echézeaux. This is one of those wines in which the fruit really does leap out from the glass. The perfume is alluring and broad and the wine is soft and supple, delicious. Could be the power of suggestion, but I felt that if I tasted this blind I might have guessed Chambolle.

2008 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Echézeaux. So different from the 2009. This wine is classic - pure, elegant, and spare. Well balanced with strong acidity, the wine leaves a stony and floral perfume on the palate. I enjoyed the 2009 and it is very high quality, but I would prefer to drink this wine now, as it is more articulate and complex.

2009 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Vieille Vignes. First of all, the difference in terroir here is immediately apparent, as the wines from here show an earthier, gamier personality. This wine is dark and the fruit is infused with animale notes. The purity is striking and there is a clear sense of the stone underneath the fruit. This wine is layered and deep, and is very intense without sacrificing any detail. Very impressive wine.

2008 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin Vieille Vignes. My personal favorite of the four villages wines. The nose is truly lovely - pure and airy, stony, herbal, and a pretty blend of red and black fruit. The palate is focused with acid-driven red fruit flavors and a mineral finish that is quite pungent. This one will definitely have a place in my cellar.

About Clos Saint-Jacques, Jean-Marie said "Each row is 400 meters long. Vineyards were sold in ouvrees, a plot that is approximately the size that one person can work in one day. An ouvree is 400 square meters, so long time ago when Clos Saint-Jacques was auctioned off, the question wasn't how many ouvrees do you want to buy, it was how many rows." Clos Saint-Jacques is the only vineyard, according to Jean-Marie, in which every owner owns entire rows of vines from the top of the slope to the bottom.

2009 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint-Jacques. An iconic vineyard, and Fourrier is unquestionably, with Rousseau, the reference standard producer. Fourrier's vines here are 100 years old. Yes, 100 year old. This wine is very potent, and I found it very difficult to understand, never mind evaluate. It's as if it hasn't really been born yet. Smoke infuses the fruit, very ripe, and the palate finishes with something herbal, like eucalyptus. Lots of grip here. Seems like there is an enormous amount of raw material, and it needs lots of time to fully harmonize.

2008 Domaine Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos Saint-Jacques. I loved this wine. The nose is incredible, and I could sense the tiny berries, all dry extract, hard spices, and stone. The nose is so detailed and expressive, and the palate is very powerful with fruit and spice, a bit meaty. Depth, complexity, balance, and the wine has only just begun. To me, wines like this justify the common claim that Clos Saint-Jacques should be elevated to Grand Cru status.

In the end, this tasting reinforced for me the fact that I personally prefer leaner red Burgundy wines from vintages that may not be as ripe, but instead offer a very detailed articulation of aroma and flavor against a more spare core of fruit. Not that I'd ever pass on a chance to drink Fourrier's 09's. Just saying that stylistically, the 2008's are more exciting to me.