Sunday, September 16, 2012

Crabs the Basque way - but with wine, not Natty Boh

MFWC grew up in Baltimore, so I consider the steamed crab not just a delicacy but a symbol of regional pride. I was befuddled but intrigued when I saw "grilled crab" on the menu at Etxebarri, a restaurant in the Basque country that takes grilling to new heights. Was this grilled crabmeat? No, this was a crab from the waters off of Galicia placed on the grill. Curiosity got the better of me, which was a good thing. The whole animal arrived on a plate with a knife, fork, and pincers to extract the meat from the shell. Among the tools of the Baltimore crabhouse, only the mallet was missing, but crushing these claws would have been an insult to the quality of the meat inside. The crab, of a different species than the Chesapeake Bay blue crab but with a similar anatomy, was delicious, its meat tasting slightly of smoke and lightly and elegantly of butter. At €24 it was by far the most expensive crab I've ever consumed, but also the best, an excellent start to a week's vacation in La Rioja and the Basque country. 

I had Txangurro, a more traditional preparation of spider crab several days later at Rekondo in San Sebastian, famous for a wine list that runs to almost 300 pages and has stunningly low mark-ups on iconic wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and La Rioja, among other places. I would have chosen a 1987 Lopez de Heredia Gran Reserva, but the owner was keeping his few remaining bottles for his own consumption, so I opted for Chablis, a 2007 Raveneau premier cru Les Butteaux for €60, significantly less than the $110 or so it sells for here in stores, let alone restaurants. The sommelier recommended the crab as an entree. It turned out to be a far better version of that Baltimore classic crab imperial. The spider crab, he said, was blended with some tomato, Armagnac and Cognac, finished with a little cheese, run under the broiler and served in its shell, which was bigger and deeper than that of even a large blue crab. (A recipe for something similar is here.) The preparation was luxurious without being overly rich and a good match for the wine, which tasted like really clean spring water - more delicious than it might sound even if one might hope for more in a bottle at that price.

The intelligence about the quality of the '87 Heredia came in handy the next day at Kaia-Kaipe in Getaria, which is worth a visit for the beauty of the town, the Txakoli producers in the immediate vicinity, and the newly opened Museo Balenciaga that overlooks the harbor. I opted for the '87 Heredia reserva at €29 to go with grilled squid and cod throats in salsa verde, and it was a terrific bottle, its nose of dried orange and a hint of honey reminiscent of Heredia's very distinctive rosés. Heredia's younger whites have good acidity that bordered on excessive in the '96 that I tasted at their vineyards that week, but the '87 had mellowed without losing its leanness. I can only wonder what the classic 1970 and 1964 taste like.

I visited Heredia on my trip to Spain last fall, and the return trip to the wineries was different enough to be worthwhile, but the best view of their vineyards came on a tour of Remelluri and a few other properties with Telmo Rodriguez, who makes Remelluri's wines and a number of others around Spain. In the 1960s, Telmo's parents bought an abandoned church property several miles outside of Haro where his father began cultivating grapes. The father made the reds himself but allowed his son to produce a white from grapes grown on the property, but Telmo now owns a few other vineyards nearby, one of which affords a view of the Tondonia vineyards, one of the three that Lopez de Heredia owned. Telmo pointed them out to three Portuguese and me from a vineyard he's just starting to develop.

A sense of place is important to him even in the sites he picks; he says he sees the site and imagines the wine he can make from it rather than thinking about which grapes he'll plant. With sites like these it's easy to understand his method; La Rioja is beautiful, with high mountains sheltering more gentle, sloping hills on which grapes, olives, and grains grow. Telmo worked with the famous Rhone producer Jean-Louis Chave when he was younger, an influence that pushed Rodriguez to make more delicate red wines than was the fashion, or than La Rioja is known for. A taste of syrah from one of Remelluri's barrels reminded me of an Arnot-Roberts syrah I tasted this winter and found haunting, perhaps an example of the way young producers in different areas can be influenced by an established winemaker from yet another region. As we were looking toward the Tondonia properties and enjoying some peaches that a local farmer who knows Telmo had given him, he noted that though Heredia has for decades been seen as the epitome of La Rioja winemaking, the man who built it in the late 19th and early 20th century was himself not a traditionalist. There's room for both approaches, just as the same diner can enjoy both the radical simplicity of a grilled crab and the traditional elegance of a classic preparation.         

Sunday, August 19, 2012

From albacore to chicken hearts: Wining and dining in the Bay Area

Sloth has gotten the better of the MFWC for the last month, for which I can only plead that the misery of the July heat sapped my energy, while two weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area offered distractions with which sitting in front of a keyboard could not compete, (e.g., Cowgirl Creamery chevre and blueberry jam on an Acme roll at the Ferry Building) though they did provide gist for a blog post.

The epicenter of Bay Area cuisine is Chez Panisse, the ingredient-driven restaurant that Alice Waters opened in Berkeley in 1971 and that has trained and influenced generations of chefs. Numerous notable San Francisco restaurants still show her influence, and Chez Panisse itself remains an excellent restaurant. Critics claim that time has passed it by; perhaps they should sample the peach galette with a scoop of raspberry ice cream that I ate there a few weeks ago after a salad of shrimp, scallops and mussels dressed with a saffron mayonnaise followed by a perfectly roasted albacore. Waters and the wine importer Kermit Lynch have influenced one another since their early days in the food business, but the wine list at Chez Panisse wanders well beyond the realm of Lynch and has relatively low mark-ups. I enjoyed a glass of the 2008 Coenobium, a wine made by nuns in Lazio under the supervision of Paolo Bea, for something like $11.

But there's no need to stick to new American cuisine in the Bay Area, of course. La Ciccia in the Mission focuses on the cuisine of Sardinia, but its wine list ranges all over Italy, and I reached for the Occhipinti 2011 SP68 white, a blend of zibibbo, which is a form of muscat, Moscato di Alexandria, and grillo, which at $40 was a bargain. (It goes for $27 at Chamber St. Wines, for example.) The nose is floral with a touch of citrus but has a backbone of acidity that allowed it to stand up to a delicious octopus stew in a spicy tomato broth that was more than entree sized given that the broth was far too good to send back to the kitchen.

I didn't get to Nopalito in the Panhandle on this trip, a very reasonably priced Mexican restaurant that serves authentic food made with quality ingredients, but I did hit up Comal in Berkeley with a few friends. We could have used a few more mouths to work through the menu, which featured more fish than Nopalito but was of equivalent quality. But the revelations at Comal were the $8 wines on tap, one an Arnot-Roberts sauvignon blanc, the other a trousseau gris from Pax Mahle's Wind Gap, both respected California wineries whose bottles generally cost $25 and up and are oddly enough hard to find in Bay Area wine stores. (The Arnot-Roberts touriga nacional rose is a beautiful, delicate wine, by the way.) The Arnot-Roberts sauvignon blanc was very good, but I erred by not getting a glass of the trousseau gris, which is different from the version that Wind Gap sells by the bottle. That wine, a white, sees extended skin contact and needs a day to breathe; this one, I was told, does not, and it was delicious, subtle, reminiscent of chenin blanc. For $8, I repeat.

Wine did not feature at all in the most memorable meal I had on my west coast swing. Ippuku serves only Japanese spirits and prides itself on the quality of its chicken, which it even serves in a raw preparation. I had the salmonella surprise, as one of my friends called it, last year, but the dish that stuck in my mind was a skewer of grilled chicken hearts, which had the richness of good game with none of the fat. Once again, they were perfect, as were the sardines, both of which were grilled over the oak charcoal Ippuku imports from Japan and good enough to remind me of my trip to Etxebarri in the Basque Country. I began with raw albacore in a sesame mustard sauce that was at least equal in quality to the fish served at Chez Panisse. The only misstep was a slightly oversalted rice in squid ink. But at $53 with a glass of shochu, tax and tip, it would be churlish to complain and down right stupid not to return.          


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Revisiting a classic: Peynaud's The Taste of Wine

Before Louis Pasteur discovered that different yeasts could affect a wine's taste, "Good wine was merely the result of lucky accidents," wrote Émile Peynaud, the great Bordelais vintner who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to understand those accidents and bring them under human control. Born in 1912, Peynaud went to work at age 14 for Calvet, then the leading wine merchant in Bordeaux, and after World War II began advising many of the region's most prominent winemakers, a position that gave him immense influence and allowed him to advocate for advances that he had spent years studying and that he described in his book Connaissance et travail du vin. In later years Peynaud consulted with winemakers around the world, and his critics charged that he like the critic Robert Parker was a key factor in the increasing homogenization of wine around the world, which defenders such as the wine writer Mike Steinberger argued was a gross distortion of Peynaud's real legacy.

Eight years after his death, some of that legacy now rests on his 1983 book Le Goût du Vin, translated into English as The Taste of Wine. It remains astonishingly good; the only book on wine I've encountered that belongs in the same sentence is Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route. Peynaud has a deep respect for the place of wine in French culture that is unclouded by sentimentality. In one short section, "The Winetaster is easily influenced," he cites a study by Pasteur, a passage from Rabelais, and a lunch with a supercilious sommelier at an elite Paris restaurant who is sure that all white bordeaux are sweet (they aren't) and when confronted with a dry one says that it tastes sweet to him. The passage is typical both for its erudition and for its recognition of the immense difficulty of tasting well.    

For Peynaud, "Tasting is an act of self-examination where the winetaster stands apart from himself, looking on as his mind's eye scans fleeting impressions of wines already tasted, probing his memory for images and reference points."

Some of those reference points, of course, are smells, and like most writers on tasting Peynaud emphasizes the importance of building a mental inventory of them despite the challenges to doing so, not least the fact that "from childhood on, city life cuts us off from the profusion of tastes and smells that occur in nature."

But for Peynaud, science also provided reference points. In his work as a consultant, he was often asked to diagnose what had gone wrong with a given wine, and the smell told the story: Wine stored too close to insecticide, or made from grapes contaminated by fumes from a nearby dump where garbage was burned, or vinified in a poor process, perhaps at too high a temperature or in old, dirty  barrels. That's how winemakers taste wine now, but not how many of them tasted when Peynaud began in the business, and it remains a sensibility almost impossible for amateurs to acquire, just as football coaches see a totally different game than even very studious fans.

As immersed as Peynaud was in the science of wine, he understood, as one of his friends put it, that "nothing can really be appreciated except in its cultural context." He notes, for example, that French and German drinkers have very different perceptions of sweetness in wine. "There is a national taste, even a regional taste, and each has its own vocabulary," he wrote. "It may also be that the equivalent adjectives in the two languages do not have quite the same meaning." As a result, the ambit of any taster's knowledge is extremely limited. Even 30 years ago he could write, "No one can have studied all the world's wines, and there is no such thing as a universal taster. When judging the wines from different countries together, one ought to take into account the particular tastes of their peoples as well as their eating and drinking habits."

That sounds like something one of today's natural winemakers would say, though some of them would argue that Peynaud ushered in an era of international consultants or "flying winemakers" who inevitably lack such specialized local knowledge. But that knowledge is most valuable - perhaps only valuable - when linked to a thorough scientific understanding of how wine is made. Peynaud's descriptions of older Bordeaux shows that such comprehension need not come at the cost of a more lyrical appreciation of wine. "There is something touching about the lasting character of wine," Peynaud writes. "The bottle which stores and refines it gives it a personality at the same time. For the receptive amateur with something of the poet in him, such a wine becomes a message from the past, a continuation, a milestone, a trace, a memento."


Saturday, June 23, 2012

The problem of Pinot Grigio

Last month, MFWC picked up a new member(s), the husband of a couple who are both in sales - call them the Sales Couple. SC has a standing order for Pinot Grigio, which created a challenge and raised a question.

The challenge is that the salespeople at MFWC's favorite haunts tend to regard Pinot Grigio as uninteresting, insipid and overpriced and therefore don't carry a lot of it. Fortunately, SC are flexible folk, which has meant that they've taken a crash course in Austrian whites - not a coincidence, it turns out. Astor Wines started them off with a 2009 Grüner Veltliner from the producer Neumayer that they liked, and then I selected the 2011 Christ Gemischter Satz, a crisp wine with a floral nose that's a field blend of grapes including Riesling, Grüner, Weissburgunder, Gelber Muskateller, Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The next week, Chamber St. Wines opted for another Grüner, the 2011 Ott Am Berg. SC seems to have forgotten all about Santa Margherita, the very successful Pinot Grigio that wine geeks love to hate.

That disdain puzzled me, since Pinot Grigio is merely the Italian name for Pinot Gris, a French grape that reaches its apex in Alsace and is also grown in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Moravia and even Oregon, where it is now the most widely planted white variety and second most widely planted overall after Pinot Noir. Alsace produces full-bodied Pinot Gris, as does Oregon; David Phillips, a sales manager at Astor, mentioned the Ponzi from Oregon's Willamette Valley as a nice, affordable example.  

Historically, Phillips said, Italian Pinot Grigios were similar to their northern cousins. The winemakers often allowed the skins to stay in contact with the pressed grape juice for a time after pressing, which gives the wine more flavor and richness. But in the 1960s and 1970s the popularity in the U.S. of Gavi, a white wine made in the Piedmont, led some Italian winemakers to produce lighter crisper wines. Pinot Grigio was planted primarily in the northeastern provinces of Friuli, Alto Adagio and the Veneto, and those winemakers found models in the wines of neighboring Austria, where Grüner Veltliner is the most commonly grown grape. Santa Margherita was particularly successful at promoting the style in the U.S., where Pinot Grigio became an alternative to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, a style so light and ineffectual that it was almost wine for people who didn't want to be drinking wine. Planting of Pinot Grigio in Italy almost doubled from 8,600 acres in 1990 to 16,300 a decade later, according to the Oxford Wine Dictionary, and has continued to rise, according to Phillips. As production went up, quality went down.

As SC has discovered, Grüner is an excellent substitute for Pinot Grigio. Phillips suggested Picpoul, w hite from the south of France. Several MFWC members who asked for Pinot Grigio were very pleased with the Ambra Blanco from Ischia, an island off of Naples. But one MFWC member, a man of Sicilian extraction, echoed the geeks' criticism of Pinot Grigio when he said that Ambra Blanco "tastes like water. Italian soda, is what it is." Maybe he needs an old-school Pinot Grigio.    

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's all in your mind

Drinking wine with any level of seriousness raises fundamental issues of perception. Is taste objective or subjective? What's the relationship between the locus of sensation and the mind? And so on. Once the province of philosophy, such questions have over the last century become the object of scientific inquiry. Thanks largely to the insights of James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered RNA and DNA, researchers have been able to study these questions at the molecular level for the last several decades.

Richard Axel of Columbia University won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work on the olfactory system and how the brain interprets smell, but he has not produced an explanation of his work for non-scientists. Eric Kandel, a colleague of Axel at Columbia and a Nobel laureate for his own work on the biology of memory, has. In Search of Memory is a surprisingly comprehensible history of scientific research into memory and the workings of the mind. Kandel makes his research on memory in Aplysia, a species of sea slug, intelligible and even engrossing. (He chose the species because its physiology - long, thick neurons, and relatively few of them - made the research into their workings easier.)

Modern neuroscience investigates how the brain's molecular physiology enables its plasticity, its ability to learn and change, to respond to experience. In the 1930s, the American scientist Wade Marshall showed that the cortex contains "precise maps of the body's sensory receptors," with the hands, the feet, and the face being larger on that figurative map than they are physically. Michael Merzenich of the University of California San Francisco significantly advanced that research in the 1970s and 1980s by showing that repeated use does increase the sensitivity of a given body part - in other words, increases the area of the cortex devoted to that body part.

That would seem to true for taste buds as well. The more wine you taste, the greater your ability to perceive changes in the wine and, perhaps, to describe them, a problem that Kandel would not have faced with sea slugs or Merzenich with monkeys. It's also true that the brain becomes less plastic as it ages. Does this mean that people "know" the smells they were familiar with growing up better than those they encounter as adults? It would seem so, analogizing to the violinists who began playing the instrument before age 13 and have larger images of their left hand in their cortexes than those who began playing the instrument after that age, but Kandel has other issues to explore.

In the process, he raised a number of fascinating issues in this drinker's mind. I often lament when I drink an unfamiliar wine - Austrian rieslings, for example - that I don't understand the smells the wine emits. In Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch recommends that budding connoisseurs buy a case of a wine they like and study it as they drink through the twelve bottles. In doing so, the drinker is training his nose and therefore his brain to perceive certain smells and understand how the wine is constructed, just as children learn how narratives are constructed by hearing the same one over and over and over. But this in turn raises the question of how similar learning a language is neurologically to learning how to recognize a smell (quite similar on a molecular level, I think Kandel would say). The questions multiply quickly, even dizzyingly in reading Kandel's book.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mapping the wine trade

The devastation of the French wine industry by Phylloxera in the 1860s is a central event in the history of wine that affected what was already a global business. Charles Joseph Minard, a key figure in the history of information graphics, offered snapshots of that business in at least two of his works. Minard is most famous for his depiction of the losses that Napoleon's army suffered in its invasion of Russia, a chart hailed as a landmark by observers as distinguished as Edward Tufte. But for the most part Minard focused on the analysis of trade and transportation; in one chart, for example, he showed the almost immediate effect of the American Civil War on European cotton imports.  

In two of the 71 graphics he produced over the course of his long career, Minard analyzed the French wine trade. One shows the French exports in 1864 (see no. 49 in this list of his work); the other depicts the intra-French wine trade, in which pink reflects railroad transportation and green movement of wine along rivers. Paris dominates, of course, and Bordeaux and the southwest produce far more wine than any region and seem to outpace Burgundy by a wide margin. The map was made in 1860, just a few years before the discovery of phylloxera, the pest that devastated the French wine industry in the years after 1875. The concentration of the French wine industry around Bordeaux suggests the immense opportunity that the crisis offered producers in La Rioja, who seized it aggressively. Minard did not survive to chart that development; he died at age 89 in 1870 in Bordeaux, to which he had fled in fear that the Prussians would invade Paris.         

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A little aging goes a long way: Aligoté and Lopez de Heredia

As I was tasting through a lineup of roses at Frankly Wines in Tribeca on Wednesday, I asked owner Christy Frank why no one in New York carries the Olivier LeFlaive Aligoté that I'd enjoyed so much the previous day at Aquavit. I mentioned the comparison with the de Moor, and she asked what years they were - 2009 for the LeFlaive, 2010 for the de Moor. Aligoté is meant to be drunk very young, but Frank suggested that the extra year could well have been critical in ridding the LeFlaive of what she called "that battery acid taste," which had displeased one of my coworkers who drank the de Moor on its own. Frank said that within the last year she bought some Aligoté from Domaine A. et P. De Villaine. Aubert De Villaine is the co-owner and co-director of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, whose wines are the most hallowed, and expensive, in Burgundy. Frank bought a few cases of the Aligoté on close-out from the distributor both because they were cheaper and because the extra time in the bottle softened the wine's acidity and made for a much more drinkable beverage. (If you're in Chicago, you can pick up a bottle of the 2009 at Binny's for $24.)

I experienced the difference a few years in bottle can make yesterday in drinking a 2001 Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia, a wine entirely of Viura, which is also known as Macabeo. I had the same wine two years ago, probably not long after its release in the U.S. and remember it as being almost unpleasantly sharp. Yesterday, though, it had a beautiful soft gingerbread smell and, one of my friends said, a touch of petrol (a good thing, as in a Riesling, but perhaps one that needs a descriptor more appealing to Americans who don't like gas fumes). The acidity had receded into the background but gave the wine a backbone and allowed it to stand up to a softy, smelly cow's milk cheese.

That same backbone of acidity was present in a 1991 Heredia cosecha, their grand reserve Viura that I bought at the winery in November in a spasm of vacation-induced profligacy and drank at lunch on Friday. It started off smelling like hazelnuts, then rolled into orange zest, lemon zest, light caramel and popcorn with butter and salt. Many of those flavors come courtesy of the Kentucky and Missouri oak barrels in which the wine is aged for years on end. A pea soup brought out the floral quality in the wine, which went perfectly with a Spanish blue cheese. Heredia's best whites can age for decades, but the people at the winery said this one was ready to drink, and they knew their product. If the euro keeps dropping, I may feel less guilty about picking up another one when I go back to Haro this fall.  


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A softer Aligoté and a cheap LeFlaive for those on the left coast

Aligoté is Burgundy's other white grape, the very poor cousin of Chardonnay. But many of the region's good producers offer affordable wines made from Aligoté. Olivier and Alice de Moor offer one that's about $20 and goes nicely with oysters. One MFWC member thought the de Moor Aligoté went well with a simple spring picnic; another found the acidity unpleasant when he consumed a bottle on its own.

They'd both be happier with the 2009 Aligoté from Olivier LeFlaive, whose Puligny-Montrachet I sampled in January. Aquavit, the outpost of Scandinavian cuisine in Midtown, has the LeFlaive Aligoté for $14 a glass, and it's a winner with the restaurant's herring and bouillabaisse. The wine has enough acidity to stand up to both but is cleaner and rounder than the de Moor, with a touch of oak. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be available in New York, though Frederic Wildman has the 2010 listed on its website. Assuming a per bottle price of $15, it's worth keeping an eye out for:    

Those of you in the Bay Area can cool your heels with another affordable LeFlaive:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Austrian olfactory overload - and a damn good $15 red

Wine dinners challenge the guest in two ways. The need to remain reasonably sober is obvious; hence the small pours and the spit buckets meant to facilitate the evaluation of a dozen or more wines. But even for those disciplined enough to avoid overindulgence, sensory overload is almost inevitable, not just for the palate, but for the nose. Several hours of swirling and sniffing in search of subtle aromas is in its way as mentally taxing as taking a law school exam.

That's especially true when the smells are unfamiliar, as they were last week at a dinner where the wines of Austria were poured. (See for a description.) Austria is most famous in this country for its whites, particularly Gruner Veltliner, the grape most widely grown in the country, and Riesling. The shorthand description of an everyday Gruner is tropical fruit with some white pepper, but that seemed a woefully inadequate description of a higher order of the species from Rudi Pichler in a magnum that the Austrian Wine Marketing Board sent over for the event along with several others. It had pineapple and white pepper, but there was an almost floral smell I couldn't place, which would be a theme of the evening for me - sort of like the many law school exam questions I couldn't figure out how to unlock. I could only describe many of the wines as herbal in the way a liquor might refract and concentrate the smell of a particular herb, but i couldn't place the herb. My vocabulary of smells was impoverished.

The aphasia reached its apex with a 2007 Blaufrankisch from Paul Achs. The nose was entrancing, and the wine tasted like a very good burgundy, but after three hours of sniffing, that was the best I could manage. A few days later, I wandered into Astor Wines and asked their Austrian expert about Achs. The wine I had isn't imported into the U.S., but I picked up a 2009 Achs zweigelt as well as one from Rosi Schuster, a producer in Burgenland, the easternmost part of Austria. For $15, it was a really good wine, well-balanced, nice, controlled fruit, and just enough tannin to keep you honest. It had the liveliness and lightness of a good Beaujolais but enough complexity to hold my attention. It's a wine that will bring me back to the Austrian red section.     

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The mysteries of vintage

Wine geeks with money obsess about vintage. The wines that echo through the decades have a year appended to them, like the 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 1961 Latour that were famous enough to win a shout-out in the movie Ratatouille. Sometimes the year itself takes top billing, as with the 1982s from Bordeaux. These are legendary wines with prices to match. As someone who frequents far more modest precincts of the wine universe, MFWC has often wondered why vintage matters. Intellectually, I understand that weather varies from year to year, especially in Europe, and that differences in temperature and rainfall can have dramatic effects on the wine. The '47 Cheval Blanc is itself the product of an intensely hot summer in Bordeaux. But how does this manifest itself in everyday wines?

I got my first inkling a few months ago at Gramercy Tavern when I split a bottle of Michel Gahier's 2009 La Vigne de Louis, a wine made from the Trousseau grape. Trousseau is grown only in the Jura, in northeastern France, and it generally produces a light wine. This one had a fuller nose and was much more robust than I had expected - more alcohol, bigger flavors, and much less obvious acidity. The same thing happened when I drank the Gahier Grand Vergers that I picked up at Union Square Wines during one of their sales. It turns out that 2009 was a hot year throughout Europe. The hotter the climate, the more sugar the grapes produce, and the more alcohol the wine made from them has. The French have a term for this, coups de soleil, or sunburn, to which Pinot Noir is especially susceptible because it ripens earlier than other grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is more impervious to heat, which makes it a better grape for California. (The you, Oxford Wine Dictionary.)  

If sunburn tastes like the 2009 Volnay Premier Cru "Carelle Sous la Chapelle" from Domaine Rossignal-Fevrier, I can live without it. Wines from Volnay, in Burgundy, are famous for their delicacy, the OWD tells us, but this one had all the subtlety of a 240-pound fullback rumbling for three yards and a first down before meeting a linebacker head-on. The wine's heat - its alcohol - was too much for me when I tasted it last week at a gathering of lawyers in New York. In fairness, the person next to be very much enjoyed it, but she and her husband prefer bigger wines.

But vintage shouldn't lead to overly sweeping judgments, as the other wine served at the dinner showed. Aloxe-Corton is about seven miles northeast of Volnay, with the small town of Beaune right in the middle. (Puligny-Montrachet, whence the bargain-bin 2009 Olivier Leflaive I had this winter, is five miles south of Volnay; Arbois in the Jura is 60 miles east as the crow flies.) The '09 Dubreil Fontaine Premier Cru from Corton-Charlemagne near Aloxe-Corton was delicious. Served a little too cold at the cocktail hour that preceded the dinner, its acidity was forward, but once it warmed up, its nose was entrancing, beautiful, delicate, soft. I didn't take notes, since I was ostensibly at the dinner in a professional capacity, but the wine seemed better integrated and more polished than the Puligny-Montrachet. Delicacy prevents me from discussing the crass question of value in this case, but it's safe to say that I won't write off the 2009 whites from Burgundy.        

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Breaking out of the rut

Wine drinkers, wine buyers, we all get into ruts. Johnny Bayside (AKA Bronx - he just moved) wants the Merlot from Argentina. Samba wants cheap and cheerful. I liked the Niepoort Douro Twisted and think it's a good off-beat choice for those in search of a robust red. The boss wants a red from the Loire. This is the flip side of knowing what you want - your taste narrows, and you become like Madame Chard du Chene, someone who needs serious intervention to avoid drinking the same thing for the rest of your life.

One of my friends, the hedge funder who hasn't lost his frugal streak, came up with a clever way to solve this problem. Rather than ask for German riesling with a touch of residual sugar, he asked me to get him wines that "tasted like honey dripped on slate." He did end up with two German rieslings, but he also got two Loire whites, a muscadet from Clos de Briods and Chidaine's entry level sauvignon blanc; a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon from Bordeaux; and a pinot gris from Alsace, a grape once known as the Tokay d'Alsace until the Hungarians complained to the European Union, which required the Alsatians to change the name. (Tokai is the grape from which a famous sweet wine is made and is even mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem: "O God, let nectar’s silver rain ripen grapes of Tokay soon.") The hedge funder liked the Rieslings and thought the white Bordeaux was OK; the other three remain unconsumed.

Another approach is to go to tastings and buy what you like. A few weeks ago, I very much enjoyed a Grignolino from Tavijn, a producer in the Asti Province of Piedmont. The wine was light with a pleasant nose, nice acidity and an earthiness reminiscent of Cabernet franc, which made me recommend it the boss, who perked up his ears at the Oxford Wine Dictionary's comparison of Grignolino to Dolcetto. Italian immigrants to California brought Grignolino with them, and the famous California producer Heitz makes a wine from the varietal that's currently on the list at Annisa in the West Village and can be had for $20 a bottle at Astor St. Wines. Heitz also makes a Grignolino rose. Having associates Heitz with expensive cabs, I was pleased to learn that they offer lighter, cheaper wines from a grape that they proudly note on their website is often called "the little strawberry" in Italy and recalls an era of California winemaking that's almost lost today. How's that for breaking out of a rut?           

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Revisiting a Chablisien riot

Difficult as perceptions of smell and taste are to describe, memories of them are even more fleeting. Perhaps the most famous literary recounting of such a memory, of course, is Proust's madeleine. As an adult, the narrator of Swann's Way tastes one of the little cakes dipped in tea, a morsel that immediately conjures a vivid, precise memory of the room in Marcel's aunt once gave him such treats. But beyond remarking that the tea was lime-blossom, the narrator makes no attempt to describe the taste itself. "Clearly, the truth I am seeking is not in the drink but in me," the narrator writes before searching his mind for "the image, the visual memory which is attached to this taste," which itself remains a mystery. Sweet? Delicate? Exactly like the madeleine at some Paris bakery? We never find out. If Proust won't take up this challenge, what chance do the rest of us have with it?

I can scarcely remember the precise flavors of even the wines I like most.Two years ago at a packed tasting of wines from Chablis at Crush Wines, I sampled the 2008 Rosette from Olivier and Alive de Moor. I remember the wine was delicious in a riotous way, the flavors popping on the tongue, and that it seemed ready to drink then. I remember making a very big check mark next to the listing for the wine on the sheet listing the tasting lineup, which still litters my apartment. I probably gurgled with pleasure, though I can't swear to it. I also remember that the wine was $35 a bottle, and that frugality won the day over luxuriance.

I later split some oysters and a bottle of De Moor's aligote, a dry, crisp, acidic white, with friends on a few occasions at Bar Henry on Houston Street. The De Moor was good but not dreamy, though it wasn't made or priced to be. (Speaking of oysters and downtown wine bars, the owner at Ten Bells recommended a glass of the Lunotte menu pineau with his $1.25 before 7:00 P.M. specials. By the same producer as the Rossignoux I discussed a few weeks ago, the menu pineau was a lot more balanced.)

Union Square Wines had a few de Moors on offer at the store's sale last month, and I picked up a bottle of the '09 Rosette to serve with the poulet chez Madame Chard du Chene (OK, chicken at Mom's house). The wine was good, with honey, citrus, maybe a hint of almond and acidity that could have used some more integration into the wine that a few years in the bottle will perhaps provide, but it wasn't riotous. Perhaps I need to hunt down a bottle of the '08 Rosette to see if the riotousness remains - but then, of course, two years will have passed with their mellowing effect, and I would have to remember how the few mouthfuls tasted in 2008 to discern any mellowing. As Proust probably realized, it'd be easier to make the whole thing up.       


Saturday, March 31, 2012

Footnote to Lunotte: A chemistry lesson

The previous blog post on a natural wine from the Loire brought us into the realm of natural winemaking, the subject of numerous books and a robust and occasionally acrimonious debate within the wine world. The term itself is contradictory. Winemaking is no more a "natural" process than curing meat or pickling vegetables or preserving fruit by making jam and is indeed complicated enough that there are entire college programs devoted to its study. Many natural winemakers are graduates of such programs, the preeminent American example of which is the University of California at Davis.

MFWC did not go to Davis and had trouble understanding high school chemistry, so the following explanation, cobbled together from the Oxford Wine Dictionary, will not be a review of the chemical transformations involved in fermentation. Instead, it will emphasize the numerous choices that confront winemakers as they take the grapes from their vineyards and turn them into wine.

The basic concept is simple. Sugar is converted into alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide through the oxygen-free metabolism of yeast. The sugar, of course, comes from the grapes that are crushed into must, which differs from juice because it includes stem fragments, skin, seeds, and pulp. The vintner has to decide what grapes to plant and when to pick them, since the later they're picked, the more sugar they'll have. He also has to decide whether to include the stems, which make for a more tannic wine, and, in the case of white wines and roses, how long to expose the skins to the juice. He also must choose the container in which the fermentation will take place: stainless steel, concrete, or wood. Old oak or new oak? French oak or American oak? What size is this container going to be? All of these issues are the subject of considerable thought and discussion even when their effect on the final product is unclear and may not be understood scientifically.

Yeast turns out to be even more complicated. There are numerous yeast species, and their classification remains a scientific puzzle. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the species most frequently used for making wine and beer and leavening bread, and there are several hundred strains of it. Making matters even more complex, there are wild yeasts to which grapes are naturally exposed as they grow as well as over 100 different kinds of cultured yeasts that are added to the grape juice. Cultured yeasts are favored for their predictability and essential for producing a wine with more than about 5% alcohol, since most natural yeasts die above that level. Natural winemakers like to let the natural yeasts work early in the fermentation process, though it's again scientifically unclear whether that has any effect on the end product.

So we have grapes and yeast. In addition to carbon dioxide, the fermentation process also generates heat that can kill the yeast and thus halt the fermentation. This is where the vintner's decision about the size of container becomes important. The larger the container, the greater the need for refrigeration. (To reference the preceding post, remember that the Lunotte is fermented in a relatively small container.) The fermentation of red grapes takes four to seven days, while that of white grapes can take weeks, which adds to the challenge of making white wine, since the process must be watched and managed for much longer.

Fermentation is a complex process, and sulfur - really sulfur dioxide - helps winemakers control it by killing bacteria and wild yeast and fostering a rapid, clean fermentation in part by preventing oxidation. Literally 99%+ of all winemakers use sulfur in this way. But sulfur has a very unpleasant taste, and so lower levels of sulfur are desirable in any event. Sulfur dioxide may also combine with other compounds in the wine, whereby it loses its noxious smell but also its beneficial effects. Here I can only quote the Oxford Dictionary: "Good winemaking practice aims to maximize the free to bound ratio of sulfur dioxide; this permits winemakers to add less total sulfur dioxide to achieve the same level of protection for the wine." Hence the natural winemakers' focus on "sans soufre," which is not a virtue in itself but a reflection of careful winemaking.      

The scientific here thicket becomes dense very quickly, but the central point should be clear. The wine you drink, whether it's Chateau Lafite or Yellow Tail, is the product of numerous choices by the winemaker as well as a series of chemical processes that may not be well-understood even though they're the product of intense study and dialogue. Moreover, the means by which winemakers try to spur those processes change over time, just as tastes in wine change. A wine like Lunotte is fascinating because its maker is trying to make some of his decisions clear, which helps explain not only why his wine tastes the way it does, but why other wines may taste the way they do.  


When the natural seems strange

The 2010 Lunotte Rossignoux is one odd bottle of wine, starting with its color, a fairly deep, almost cloudy yellow, which is not what you'd expect for a sauvignon blanc from Touraine in the Loire. There's a very light effervescence initially and a nose that's hard to place, but the tiny bubbles disappear and the smell settles into a pleasant grapefruit aroma typical of sauvignon blanc within 15 minutes. On the palate, this is the love child of muscadet and chenin blanc. On first swill it has the same bracing acidity as the former which is followed by a a subtly rich honey taste and some of the viscosity of chenin blanc. I even picked up a little juniper berry on the back end. Tasty, especially with cheese, but weird. Even weirder, a MFWC member whose tastes I thought skewed to the traditional Californian loved it.     

We had stumbled into the world of natural winemaking, that widely hyped phenomenon that turns out to be fiendishly difficult to pin down beyond the incantation of a few stock terms such as small producer, hand-harvesting, low sulfur, old barrels that together are the antithesis of the California chardonnay that your mother (OK, my mother) spent years guzzling. Definitional difficulties aside, Christophe Foucher, who produces the Lunotte, is clearly talented, and by these two descriptions a typical natural winemaker: and

Foucher has 5.5 hectacres on seven plots near Tours. He treats his vines with as little insecticide and herbicide as possible and lets grass grow on every other row of his vineyard. Foucher uses older, smaller oak barrels, and local yeasts (yeast is critical for fermentation). He stints on sulfur but allows his wines to undergo malolactic fermentation, a practice far more common in reds than whites and one that accounts for the light fizziness in the Lunotte.    

There's a lot of chemistry in the previous paragraph, and MFWC is not qualified to explain it, though he will try in the next blog post. But this is chemistry in the service of commerce, and the essential commercial point is easy to understand. To be salable, wine like any product has to be consistent and stable, especially if the wine is a mass market brand. Yellow Tail should taste the same from bottle to bottle and year to year, and it should be stable enough chemically to endure a wide range of conditions. Making such a product is a challenge, because wine is not inherently stable or consistent, but it's one that natural winemakers tend to reject because they don't want their wines to taste like everyone else's. They see winemaking as an expression of personality and geographic identity. If Yellow Tail is McDonald's or Pringles or Olive garden (or, to be fair, Chipotle or at the high end BLT Steak), then Lunotte/Foucher is the local chef who wants to use fresh ingredients and show off his creative flair.

Foucher does this affordably and well. Wine geeks can ask how he does it, while those not burdened by such pretension can simply enjoy the results.      

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sticking up for white bordeaux

At a dinner last year, several friends were discussing a colleague's recent birthday celebration. No one questioned the honoree's right to choose the wine, but his choice left the group puzzled. "White bordeaux?" one wondered. "Who drinks white bordeaux? What's even in white bordeaux?" I could so little more than name the grapes: sauvignon blanc and semillon.

That skepticism and ignorance are not isolated phenomena. A generation ago, whites accounted for about a quarter of the wine produced in the region in southwestern France, a proportion that has fallen to about 10%. Sauternes, made primarily from semillion, retains its iconic status as one of the world's great sweet wines, but the dry whites of Bordeaux have fallen into disregard, and producers in the region have shifted production to grapes from which red is made: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, and carmenere. That leaves less room for sauvignon blanc and semillion, which until the 1970s was the widely planted grape in Bordeaux.  

I came by a few bottles of white bordeaux in the fall when a salesman at Frankly Wines in Tribeca recommended a 1999 L'Espirit de Chevalier from Pessac-Leognan because of my affinity for the whites of Lopez de Heredia. Just south of the city of Bordeaux, Pessac-Leognan is a sub-region of Graves, which gets its name from the gravel that underlies its soil. The L'Espirit is the second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the best producers of white in the appellationaccording to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine along with Chateau Haut-Brion, whose reds are among the most expensive wines in the world. Domaine de Chevalier wines can go for over $100 a bottle retail depending on the vintage, but the '99 L'Espirit de Chevalier can be had at few stores in New Jersey for $20 bottle, pricing that suggests its unpopularity.

It's a steal at that price and was well worth the $30 I paid for it at Frankly Wines. The semillon give the wine a nuttiness that's rich but balanced by the acid from the sauvignon blanc that's about 70% of the blend. The flavor profile is broadly similar to Heredia's wines. L'Espirit lacks their complexity, but it held up very well on its own over the course of a few hours with some cheese. The salesman recommended pairing it with scallops, perhaps sauteed in some brown butter that would match the nuttiness of the wine. Munching on some hazelnuts while drinking the L'Espirit wouldn't be a bad idea, either.    

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Remembering the Baltimore beehive in Istanbul

When I was a child in Baltimore in the 1970s, ethnic dining meant Greek food. Little Italy was past its prime even then, and because we had a garden in the summer, my mother made excellent tomato sauce, which meant her spaghetti, manicotti, and lasagna were better than anything to be had downtown even though she was not of Italian descent. Anyone not from Baltimore would have seen Haussner's as downright bizarre with its kitschy art collection, waitresses with beehive hairdos and spectacular Baltimore accents, and menu divided between German classics and Maryland seafood, but for us it was the height of fine dining, a place for special occasions where jackets and ties were required, the crabcakes were perfect, and people ordered a custard pie topped with strawberries the size of golf balls for dessert even in the dead of winter.

For the truly exotic, you had to go to Ikaros in East Baltimore's Greektown. If the leitmotiv at Haussner's was the word Hon impeccably pronounced in the local patois, at Ikaros it was the endlessly repeating Greek instrumental music that faded into the background as the room filled and conversation became louder. (Click on the website to hear it: The owner had a spectacular handlebar moustache, and his food was strange, intense, delicious, totally satisfying in a elemental way. Salad with feta cheese and olives. Moussaka. Shish kebab. Lamb shank. Baklava.

I thought of Ikaros when I walked into Karakoy restaurant in Istanbul last month for dinner. The soup, fried lamb liver, and mastic pudding I'd had there for lunch that day were all so good that I wandered back across Galata Bridge several hours later. The meze I had at dinner were just as classic and delicious, but it was the music, the generosity, the leisurely way of eating, and, the next night, a lamb shish kebab that reminded me of Ikaros and gave me the same feeling of pure happiness with food at once unfamiliar and totally comforting, like a quince in sugar syrup slathered in a mascarpone-like cheese, or a simple zucchini meze.

That sensibility permeated my meals in Istanbul. Topaz, a chic restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, offered perfect green olives I could have eaten all day and a perfect braised lamb. Ciya in Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, had the great soups that start with broth made from fresh chickens, a dessert of fresh black walnut halves with cheese, and a thyme infusion that I later learned is a tea popular in Egypt and Lebanon as well but was not less soothing for that. At Nar, on the top floor of a department store near the Grand Bazaar, I had lamb and stewed fennel in a chicken broth flavored with lemon and a little yogurt, and unlikely but delicious combination of individually flavorful elements.

And each morning at the quiet, affordable and otherwise unremarkable hotel near Hagia Sofia where I stayed, the cook presented a delicious freshly hard-boiled egg seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. One bite was enough to prove the merits of the preparation. Further frills are superfluous for cooks that begin with ingredients that good.

Evolution Down Under

Australian wine has clear associations for American drinkers. From a $6 bottle of Yellow Tail to Penfolds reserves that can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle, the wines are high in alcohol and robust bordering on overwhelming. The rise of Yellow Tail as a popular brand is one of the great marketing stories of the last generation, and it's only the most conspicuous example of a wine industry that's very astutely positioned its products for the American market. But as Lettie Teague noted in a Wall Street Journal piece on Friday, Australian shiraz has become significantly less popular in the U.S. in recent years because of the same traits that had once made it so popular. Sommeliers dislike it because it tends to overpower food, and the natural wine crowd looks askance at the way many Aussie wines are made.     

But wines from Australia and its neighbor New Zealand are a good deal more complex then their stereotypes suggest. (For New Zealand, that means lots of Sauvignon Blanc at a range of prices.) The region's haute cuisine leans heavily on Asian influences that go well with lighter wines such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir then with big reds or heavily oaked Chardonnays, and Australian consumers seem to have become more sophisticated, reducing their consumption of simple three and five-liter box wines in favor of bottles. A tasting of three wines last week at Shawn's Wine and Spirits, a very respectable store on 7th Ave. in Park Slope, suggested the complexity of wine from the antipodes.

A representative of the Fine Wine Agency in New York, which focuses on bioodynamic wines from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain, poured a Shiraz from South Australia and two New Zealand Pinot Noirs. The $14 Kingston Estate 2009 Shiraz was much more restrained than its stereotype and quite pleasant, if at 14.5% still high in alcohol. There was surprisingly little fruit, and the wine had a nice evenness on the palate.

The two pinots, the Soho Wine Co. 2010 White Label and the Cockfighter's Ghost 2007 Reserve, were light enough to remind me of reds from the Jura, though the rep suggested Alsace as a point of reference, since its climate is similar to that of the New Zealand region where the grapes for both wines are grown. Soho Wine Co., he said, aims to combine a sophistication of packaging with natural winemaking, while the Cockfighter's Ghost has something of a cult following at home. I liked the light earthiness of both wines, though I suspect at around $25 they'll be a tough sell in the U.S. But they'd be perfect on the wine list of restaurants with Asian-inspired food like the Slanted Door in San Francisco, a critical step in breaking down the cliches about reds from Down Under.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Light on La RIoja

"We must be in Haro; you can already see the lights," the saying goes in the town where La Rioja's wine trade is centered. The bon mot dates from the 1890s, when Haro was one of the first towns in Spain to get electricity thanks to the success of its wine merchants, who prospered by selling wine to the France after its vineyards were devastated by phylloxera in the 1860s and 1870s. La Rioja, which is in north central Spain just below Basque country, remains one of the country's leading wine-producing regions, and one whose winemakers are often influenced by the foreign markets they try to sell to. Spanish wine writers Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez and Victor de la Serna offer a solid introduction to the region in The Finest Wines of La Rioja and Northwest Spain, which includes Navarre to the east and Galicia and Bierzo to the west.

The easy, and familiar, organizing principle to the book is the tension between old-style Rioja - lighter in color, usually aged in older American oak and often the product of grapes sourced from different vineyards - and avant-garde wines that are bigger, richer, higher in alcohol, tend to be aged in new French oak and come from grapes of a single vineyard. It's a familiar story in a wine world that's become increasingly international over the last generation. Many winemakers fall into one of the two camps. Lopez de Heredia is the classic traditionalist; Contador, whose wines rocketed in price after the American guru Robert Parker gave one of them a 100-point score, is what the new wave hopes to become.

As always, the more fascinating parts of the story are the ones that scramble this picture. Sometimes efforts to imitate more successful competitors can backfire. Winemakers in Navarre ripped out much of their Granacha, or Grenache, in the 1980s in favor of Tempranillo, the dominant red grape of La Rioja, as well as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay but were largely unable to replicate La Rioja's success. On the other hand, growers from Bierzo have started making a name for themselves with wines from Mencia. The coffee connoisseur and Mr. Marathon have both enjoyed Mencias in the mid-teens (the Pedrolonga and the Brezo Tinto, respectively), and another member of the sales crew raved this week about the 2009 Ultreia St. Jacques from Raul Perez, a winemaker and consultant born in Bierzo who now seems to be all over Spain. The authors argue that Bierzo could be the next Priorat - a region that could become hot with wine buyers and see a spectacular increase in prices.

The authors also offer fascinating glimpses of La Rioja's past. They note in passing that Marques de Riscal's 1945 Cuvee Medoc, named for the most famous region of Bordeaux, is perhaps the greatest red wine ever produced in Spain even though more than 60% of it is cabernet, the Bordeaux grape par excellence. Going even further back, in the 1890s Gustav Eiffel designed the cellar for CVNE, Compania de Vinicola del Norte de Espana, which is next to Lopez de Heredia on the banks of the Ebro. Far from being extraneous bits of trivia, these touches suggest that Raul Perez and the winemakers of Bierzo and other emerging regions follow in a long line of Spaniards who's had to interpret the desires of the international wine market in their own distinctive ways.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wandering the Village wine stores on a Friday night, one good, one bad

MFWC needed to restore a sense of equilibrium after walking out of Parm on Friday night. The meal was so good it reduced him to expletives: a slice of toasted garlic bread topped with salami and a shirred egg to start, then an utterly satisfying plate of slightly spicy sausage and sweet peppers with a side of ziti run under the broiler and topped with a scoop of fresh ricotta and to finish an ice cream cake of coconut, chocolate and almond. F'ing awesome seemed the most appropriate tribute to a meal meant to evoke traditional Italian-American cuisine, and that was exactly the tribute MFWC paid to the guys behind the bar.  

After heading up Mulberry and crossing Houston, MFWC decided to contemplate the meal and compose himself at Astor Wines, which has as deep a selection as any wine store in New York. Astor Wines has a selection of bottles from the Jura and the Loire in the same lightly refrigerated room where it keeps its reserve bottles, but it also has plenty to appeal to those who favor the the new world and classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

More importantly, the salespeople know the stock, or know someone who does. I asked one of them if the 2005 Chateau Montus, a robust Madiron from southwest France was ready to drink. He replied that it was a lot better than he thought it wouudl be when he tasted it but would improve with age. I asked another about a Beaujolais, and he directed me toward a colleague who discussed three Beaujolais in detail, recommended against buying a 1994 Savennieres that the store was offering for $35 or so after finding a few cases in storage, and for good measure threw in a few well-considered opinions about sparkling wines - buy the Huet sparking brut petillant 2005 and when in Germany keep an eye out for sparkling rieslings, which the Germans love so much that they keep it all for themselves.

Don't expect that kind of service - or any service, for that matter - at Union Square Wines a few blocks north, whose staff is so disinterested that they could be shipped straight to an Italian post office. Union Square's pricing is generally on the expensive side, but a few times a year they offer 30% discounts on mixed cases, events where the careful shopper can find some deals.

MFWC took up the challenge and was pleasantly surprised by the 2008 Niepoort Twisted for $12.60, a Botani Muscatel from Malaga for $12 and the Cos Frappato for $22, among others. A Gahier 2009 Trousseau for $24.49 may not have been a great deal (the $35 at which USW initially offered it was absurd), but it's probably not an easy wine to find. A few bottles of the 2000 Lopez de Heredia Rose helped round out the case, no thanks to the slugs behind the counter. USW is a very good wine store when it's running a sale. Otherwise, go elsewhere.         

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Not bad for a fresh slap across the face

Last week, MFWC bought the Etz Austrian Gruner Veltliner at $14 for the liter (that's $11.50 for 750ml) for Samba. The label describes the wine as "a fresh slap across the face," which MFWC would not have thought was the best way to sell a product. The wine turned out to be lovely and refreshing, crisp with a light citrus nose, and more than fairly priced, but MWFC would bet that a lot of stores wouldn't stock a wine with such a label. If we’re lucky, the Etz Gruner will end up in discount bins across the city. 

The tasting game

The blind tasting is the classic test of an oenophile's expertise. The drinker swirls the wine in his glass, sniffs it intently, takes a swig and gargles it, gulps it down or spits it into a bucket, ponders, and then writes a few notes and perhaps a number on a pad. When the drinker describes his conclusions, the truth about both his taste and the beverage is revealed.

But what if it's all a fraud? Less dramatically, what if the components of sensory perception are so numerous and intimately related that the blind tasting is a pointless exercise for all but the most expert, or for those in the business who have to make decisions about what to put on their shelves or their wine lists? 

MFWC has stuck his tongue into the blind tasting waters twice in the last month thanks to invitations from a former co-worker - call him the Scholar of Private Equity (SPE), a generous, genial man whose great passion is wine. He collects it, reads about it, structures many of his vacations around it, and bases much of his social life around it. Had Nicholson Baker seen SPE's apartment, Baker might have written "Wine Bottles as Furniture" instead of, or in addition to, his 1995 New Yorker piece "Books as Furniture." SPE fell in love with wine as a college student at Berkeley in the 1970s, when college students could still conceive of shopping at Kermit Lynch's shop in that academic Shangri-La, and has continued to deepen his knowledge. Tasting groups are one way SPE continues to learn about wine. When he moved to New York from San Francisco in the mid-1990s, he immediately set about joining one, and it was a descendant of this group that MFWC joined for two recent monthly tastings, one of 2006 Brunellos, the other of 2009 red burgundies.

SPE's group is impressively sociable. The ten or so guests talk and munch on bread and the occasional nibble of cured meat or cheese as they sniff and taste. SPE noted that the group once displayed a much more puritanical discipline, though the focus remains firmly on the eight wines featured at each tasting. The bottles are opened a few hours before the event to breathe, and tasters record the appearance, aroma, taste and finish of each 55ml sample before ranking the wines in order of preference from one to eight. The scores are tallied and the wines taken out of their paper bags in reverse order from worst (highest cumulative score) to best.     

MFWC had some confidence in his ability to distinguish among the wines, though that confidence dissipated as he moved from wine to wine and discovered that his initial impressions changed. That's a fundamental sign of a good wine, of course, but it's disconcerting when you're confronted with eight of them that must be evaluated in relation to one another. And since on both nights the wines were from the same location and vintage, they naturally showed only modest variation. MFWC begged off ranking the Brunellos, which even the veterans said were a hopeless muddle, but took up the challenge with the Burgundies, where his rankings bore a reasonably close resemblance to the cumulative group rankings - a product of dumb luck, MFWC would hasten to add.

The best of burgs to the palate of both MFWC and the group as a whole was a $55 wine from the producer Simon Bize in Savigny-les-Beaune, a small town in Burgundy's Cote d'Or. MFWC liked it, but he wouldn't have paid $55 for it or, honestly, suspected it sold for $55 had he not been told. It's possible, though, that MWFC would have enjoyed the wine a lot more had it been the only wine on the table and he been able to focus on it over the course of a meal.         

Critics of blind tastings say they deprive drinkers of that prolonged exposure and lead them to favor wines with bold flavors and higher alcohol levels. Despite my ambivalence about the value of blind tastings, I wouldn't agree. They expose even neophytes to the subtle differences among wines and the varying ways that different people respond to them. Counterintuitively, they may force drinkers to recognize the limits of their palates and thus push them away from more expensive wines. And they inspire serious thought about wine - including the thought that such musing has its own limits.     

Sunday, February 5, 2012

That's Poligny with an "o," the one in the Jura

Last week's post departed from Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy. This week we move an hour east of Puligny-Montrachet to Poligny, a town of about 4300 people in the Jura that's most famous as the capital of Comte, a nutty cows' milk cheese very close to Gruyere. Poligny is also the home of Ludwig and Nathalie Bindernagel, who in recent years have become darlings of the biodynamic wine crowd here and in France. I went to a tasting of Bindernagel wines on Friday and was most impressed by their 2008 Cremant de Jura, a sparkling wine made entirely from pinot noir, which along with Poulsard and Trousseau is one of the three red grapes grown in the Jura. Much as I love the Jura whites, I usually find the reds a little expensive for what they are - light, delicate, pleasant wines often priced around $25. You can get a lot of Loire red for that money. The Bindernagels also run a reasonably priced B&B in Poligny ( where Nathalie reputedly sets a most impressive table at gentle prices. 

The Bindernagel wines were overshadowed by an unforgettable nip of vin jaune from Chateau-Chalon, the village where the best wines of that type are made. Vin jaune is made from savagnin (a different varietal than sauvignon blanc) that's aged in casks that aren't filled to the top with the fermented grape juice, which allows a veil of yeast to form on the surface of the wine. Sherry is made in a similar way, and vin jaune has that same nutty taste and smell. Vin jaune from Chateau-Chalon must age for six years and three months before bottling, with most of that time spent in the casks. The wine can age for decades more in its distinctive, squat bottles that hold 62cl rather than the standard 75cl.

Said nip of vin jaune was the 2003 Macle, which had an entrancing nose that incorporated sweet, rich, creamy and walnut notes and varied in intensity. Wines made from savagnin can often be unremittingly heavy and nutty, but this one bobbed and weaved with elegance. One taster suggested pairing with with scallops and bacon, which seemed an inspired suggestion, perhaps to be followed by a chicken in cream sauce or the Jura specialty chicken with vin jaune and then some Comte. This is a wine to be consumed over the course of a three-hour meal, or even over several days; the importer pouring the wines hid the vin jaune toward the end of the tasting because she was taking it to Restaurant Daniel three days later. 

Chateau-Chalon is expensive stuff given the length of time required to produce it, but frugal drinkers can search out the regular wines of Macle and Berthet-Bondet, two of the appellation's best producers.   


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pigskins in Burgundy, or What's a white burgundy worth?

When MFWC saw a Puligny-Montrachet in the bargain bin in September for $20, he fell on it like an NFL special teams player recovering a fumble in a playoff game. One of the most exalted names in the French region of Burgundy, Montrachet is a vineyard with such cachet that several neighboring villages, Puligny among them, have attached its name to their own to increase the marketability of their wines. This P-M was a 2009 Olivier Leflaive that usually retails for $45 to $50. That's modest pricing by the standards of white burgundy, which for centuries has been the world's preeminent white, with prices to match. Winemakers around the world have tried to reach those august levels by planting Chardonnay, the grape from which the best white burgundies are made. (The reds, of course, are of Pinot Noir.) The pricing means that wine drinkers with modest budgets don't drink a lot of good white burgundy, hence MFWC's responding to the P-M as if it were a pigskin. (Pigskins and Burgundy aren't as far apart as you might think; Ma Cuisine in Beaune, a beloved restaurant in the heart of Burgundy, serves a small dish of pork rinds at the beginning of a meal.)

One way around this fiscal dilemma is to drink wines from Chablis, a town in the northernmost parts of Burgundy famous for producing whites often described as "steely," or "austere." In part because most Americans associate Chablis with the bad white wine they drank in the 1970s and 1980s, much of which did not in fact come from Chablis, or even from France, wines from Chablis tend to be underpriced relative to those from elsewhere in Burgundy. That's not true for the product of Raveneau, a Chablis producer championed by Kermit Lynch, who began promoting the wines in the 1970s and is now able to impose such a mark-up when importing them that young vintages often cost more in a New York wine store than they do on some restaurant lists in France. Lynch's praise of the wines in his book sparked something of an obsession in MFWC, who ordered a 2000 Raveneau at a restaurant in Paris a year ago for €130 and quite enjoyed the delicacy of the wine, which smelled and tasted a little of honey but also had a solid backbone of acid.

At home Raveneau is off the table, though tastes of the wines of fellow Chablisiens Olivier et Alive de Moor and Patrick Piuze have lingered in MFWC's mind. The de Moor Aligote, which is delicious with oysters, can be had for under $20, though de Moor's higher-end bottles go for around $40 and Piuze's are a little more - again, cheap for Burgundy, if not for MFWC. Another possibility for those craving relatively affordable Chardonnay is to search out lesser-known blanc de blancs, or sparkling wines made entirely from that grape. After touring the Bekeley wine stores a few weeks ago, MFWC met some friends for dinner in Oakland and enjoyed a bottle of Diebolt Vallois Cramant 2005, a yeasty, creamy wine that went very well with food and can be had for $40 at Sherry-Lehman in New York.

Or you can luck out with a look in the bargain bin. Unable to resist temptation, MFWC opened the '09 Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet on Friday and thought it made for a damn good two hours of drinking after the cat pee aroma burned off within about fifteen minutes of opening. "Cat pee" is probably even more revolting than "barnyard" to any human with a nose, but it does accurately describe the sharp hit of acidity that can come from white burgundy. More pleasant were the fennel, vanilla, cream soda and even faint Coca-Cola (but better) aromas that followed, though the wine's smell often resisted description despite its considerable appeal. This wine would be perfect with roast chicken with rosemary and mashed potatoes with butter and cream, French comfort food at its finest.

So back to the question presented, as they call it in Legal Writing classes. Was the Leflaive worth it? At $20, unquestionably. The normal retain price seems fair to me as well, since the Leflaive seems on the order of Piuze and de Moor and Diebolt if less haunting than the Lopez de Heredia about which I wrote a few months ago, though I'm as deeply in the tank for Heredia as then-Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser was for the 1992 Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. ( But I don't think I got any more enjoyment out of a Raveneau than I did out of the few ounces of a Piuze wine I tasted this summer. Three times as much? Certainly not, though I would certainly love to see how Raveneau goes with the chitlins at Ma Cuisine.               



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Boozing in Berkeley

Berkeley, Ca. is one of the best dining destinations in the U.S. Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse is still going strong more than 40 years after she founded it. Across the street, the Cheese Board offers delicious, freshly made pizza at $2.50 a slice, though only in one variety per day. Near the Cal campus, Ippuku grills every part of its free-range chickens - I found the heart particularly memorable when I ate there last summer - and for the adventurous, or perhaps foolish, offers a raw chicken dish whose surprisingly appealing texture suggests the quality of the birds with which Ippuku is working: And MFWC makes daily pilgrimages to Ici on College Avenue for candied blood orange ice cream and other such frozen delights.

The options for wine buyers are just as good. Berkeley is most famous as the home of Kermit Lynch, who began importing wines from France in the early 1970s as Waters was launching Chez Panisse. Just as Waters led a movement toward a cuisine based on fresh ingredients rather than intricate preparations, Lynch became a leading importer by championing traditional wines made in what he viewed as an authentic way rather than those designed for an American audience that prefers high alcohol and big flavors - in other words, many of the wines made in Napa Valley. (See "One cagey romantic," Oct. 10.)  The Lynch label on the back of a bottle is always a good sign, but his store next to Waters's bakery Cafe Fannie in Berkeley does not offer a lot of choices for budget wine buyers. Lynch focuses almost exclusively on France and Italy, and his reputation is such that he can easily move cases of expensive wine.

The thrifty wine buyer will do better by going to Vintage Berkeley, which has stores on College Ave. across the street from Ici (they let you bring ice cream into the shop) and on Vine St., around the corner from Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board. VB focusses on wines between $10 and $20 with a few edging over that figure and a small reserve section in their College Ave. store. On the way to meet a group of people who gathered to watch the 49ers game last week (MWFC believes in adapting to the local culture when he travels even though he's rooting for Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, T-Sizzle and the rest of the Ravens to get to Indianapolis), MFWC picked up a 2009 Douro Twisted for $16.50 made by Niepoort, the Portuguese winemakers most famous for their ports. ( It turns out that Niepoort makes a number of other wines, including the Twisted, a robust red that smells of barnyard, tobacco and chocolate with a little fruit and is made from the same varietals that go into port. It's tasty stuff that gives the drinker a sense of the flavors that go into port without clubbing him over the head.

MFWC went back the next day to pick up a few more bottles, including the Occhipinti SP68 2009 white for $22. The wine is a blend of Albanello, a centuries-old Sicilian grape used primarily for blending and almost never encountered in the U.S., and zibibbo, a local name for Muscat that dervies from the Arabic zabib, "dried grape" and is also used to make a wine similar to Marsala in which the grapes are dried and then pressed. Sadly, MFWC came down with a stomach bug that prevented him from sampling the Occhipinti, though the description on the Prune website is appealing:

After picking up the Douro Twisted, MFWC headed to Paul Marcus Wines (no relation to the blogger). PMW is in a small marketplace across the street from the Rockridge BART and ranges broadly in geography and price. Here wine geeks will find Lopez de Heredia, Occhipinti, Jura wines, and rieslings; casual buyers will have a reasonable selection of affordable wines; and the cellaring classes can ask about a reserve list that has some remarkable values from both California and Europe.   

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Occhipinti, part II, and quaffing Malbec in the Bronx

The 2009 SP68 Occhipinti Frappato/Nero d’Avola entranced me from the first sip I took at a late lunch on a Friday afternoon at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I bought it for 2B Sales in September, for 1B Sales last month (1B sits next to 2B and orders a bottle at a time), and for a new club member this past week, a gregarious security guard at the front desk of my building who has relatives in Marsala, Sicily and whose sister owns a house there.
My enthusiasm extended to wines from COS (the O is for Arianna Occhipinti’s uncle Guisto – the only firm basis for my interest), a producer based in Vittoria, a town near the southeast corner of Sicily. 1B Sales liked the SP68, and this week I picked her up a COS 2010 Frappato/Nero d’Avola blend aged in clay anphorae, the vessels in which wine was stored and transported in the ancient Mediterranean. A few other Sicilian producers use amphorae, is reputedly a little nervier and edgier than wines aged in oak. COS may feel more comfortable with the material because it ferments and ages its other wines in concrete rather than oak. (
I cracked open Occhipinti’s 2008 Frappato last night with the MOME, who said he needed a few drinks to get him through a late shift at the Park Slope Food Coop, a relic of the neighborhood’s hippie past. Frappato gets little respect; the Oxford Companion to Wine gives it four lines in which the book dismisses it as a blending grape that should add “fruit and freshness to the more powerful Nero d’Avola.” 
Occhipinti did a lot better than that. The first glass of her 2008 Frappato smelled and tasted of tannins and spice in a balanced, very attractive way, and twenty minutes in the refrigerator brought out some cherry, which was also controlled. The store recommended serving this with cured ventresca, or tuna belly, which sadly was not to be found in Park Slope, but pizza and some Middle Eastern vegetarian food with a little chili pepper worked well. This wine like the 2009 SP68 left an impression of freshness and liveliness.  
Johnny Bronx isn’t about to put tuna guts into his belly. He likes a good steak grilled rare and a robust red wine to match. JB also wants that robust red to be affordable, which means he likes Malbecs from Argentina. He purchased a few of them in December and wanted two more this week, but the store was out, and MFWC returned with another affordable Malbec, the 2009 Terra Rosa.
Malbec is a French grape that may be used in red Bordeaux along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. But it fell out of favor in Bordeaux, where plantings fell by 70% between 1970 and 2000. It’s still predominant in Cahors, a town about 150 miles east of Bordeaux, but it’s now most closely associated in the American wine drinker’s mind with Argentina, where it’s become the dominant red grape and one commonly used in single-varietal wines. Another erstwhile MFWC member was quite fond of Cuma’s $12 Malbec. Judging by the Wine Library website (WL is the largest wine story in the country), it’s hard to spend more than $30 on an Argentine Malbec, which is just fine with Johnny Bronx.