Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Wine Retailer "Best Christmas Vest"

It's a great vest. Not too flashy, just the right amount of Holiday spirit. Just like its wearer. Merry Christmas, Josh!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five Farmer Fizzes

Terry Theise, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the presence of Recoltant-Manipulant Champagnes in the Unites States, likes to call them “Farmer Fizz,” which might sound pejorative to some, but that's just Terry trying to cut through the decades of pomp and circumstance that the big Grande Marque houses have laid on with a trowel in their largely successful efforts to present Champagne as a luxury item.

“Recoltant-Manipulant” translates more or less as “Grower-Maker.” This contrasts with “Négociant-Manipulant,” which translates as “Merchant-Maker.” The Grande Marque houses are N/M; the farmer fizz guys are R/M. These letters are usually in microscopic type somewhere on the border of the typical Champagne label. Unlike anywhere else in the world of wine (except Sherry), in Champagne, the people who grow the grapes and the people who make the wine operate separately. The big houses buy fruit, and often finished still wine, from wherever they choose, and then blend to achieve a house style—a wine that will taste the same every year, regardless of vintage. At a time when at least a portion of the wine-drinking public is waking up to the importance of terroir, this arrangement is the world turned upside down. And let's face it, most of the Champagne world is perfectly content with this state of affairs. Farmer fizz, its increasing popularity notwithstanding, still represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. Champagne market.

We, for better or worse, are not most people, so we were very happy when Les Doss of Vinsite announced a tasting of Grower-Maker Champagnes, held this past Tuesday evening. Thus:

Roger Coulon Brut Grande Tradition Premier Cru NV: Eric and Isabelle Coulon, representing the Coulon family's eighth generation, are based in Vrigny, in the Montagne de Reims, a bit more than six miles from Reims (pronounced "Rhhhaams" as though you were clearing your throat). They have just over 27 acres on dozens of tiny parcels in the villages of Vrigny, Pargny les Reims, and Coulommes la Montagne, all on southeast-facing slopes composed of chalk and clay. The assemblage for this wine is 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, and 25% Chardonnay. The dosage is quite low at 7 grams per liter, which is feasible thanks to their ability to harvest very ripe fruit.

The wine showed aromas of roasted nuts, brioche, and cocoa powder, followed by a palate of mouthwatering citrus, toffee, vanilla, minerals. Learn more here.

Pierre Peters Brut Cuve de Reserve Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs NV:

The Peters family history in Champagne begins in 1858 with Gaspar Péters, a native of Luxembourg, who married a local girl who owned a few acres of vineyard in Le Mesnil. For many years, they were growers only. Today, the family has 45 acres in the villages of Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Cramant, and Avize, all on a chalk outcrop in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Whole bunches are picked by hand, pressed very, very carefully, and fermented in stainless. The assemblage for this Cuvée may contain wines from reserve stock going back 15 years. Click here for more on the wines and their history.

This is a Blanc de Blanc, 100% Chardonnay. It opened with a nose that offered hints of green apple and pear. The palate was very clean, linear, and ended with a burst of citrus. Our friend Jay Murrie at 3Cups compares it favorably to Salon. Our friend Ryan, who sat with (and charmed) The Chef at the tasting, called it “Sushi wine,” and I'm inclined to agree. It is no-nonsense, very focused Champagne, and it is easy to imagine it alongside a few pieces of super-fresh, precisely cut toro. Champagne Peters website.

Jean Lallement Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV: 

 Jean Lallement (pronounced Lall-Mont, it says here) farms 10 acres between the Grand Cru villages of Verzenay and Verzy, in the Montagne de Reims region. The soil is mostly limestone. Made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Terry Theise says this is the favorite wine in his entire Champagne portfolio, and it is easy to understand why. We got wonderfully integrated aromas and flavors of toast, apple, anise, pear, and lemon, all beautifully balanced, with a pleasing texture—not too austere, not too fat, just right. The combined sensations of toastiness, fruit, and minerally spice have a magnetic appeal. This was the bottle I'd most like to take home. Here's a brief meditation from Peter Liem on Lallement.

Francis Boulard Brut Nature Mailly Grand Cru NV:

Boulard's website is a model of clarity; you can read the details of this wine's production here. Boulard is a by-the-book biodynamic grower; he stopped using weedkillers and chemical fertilizers in 2001, and has been guaranteed biodynamic by EcoCert since 2004. Like a very few other courageous vignerons, Boulard does not “green harvest” to keep yields low. Instead he goes out early in the year and prunes his vines short. This is a Brut Nature, so there is no dosage at all; he depends completely on ripe fruit for his sugars. In a tasting of small-production wines, his is the smallest of all: Just 7.5 acres under cultivation—and fruit from his Mailly-Champagne vineyard, used to make this wine, is just a fraction of this! This was made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay. It offered aromas and flavors of orange blossom, chalky minerals, and lemon cream. Remarkably, it had not a hint of the harshness that is often a feature of non-dosage wines. In my limited experience of non-dosage Champagnes, this has the best balance of fruit and acidity, and the most pleasing texture.  

Guy Larmandier Brut Rosé Premier Cru NV: 

 The Larmandiers have been growers since 1899. Today, François Larmandier farms 22 acres in four villages in the Côte des Blancs: Cramant and Chouilly (for Chardonnay only) are Grand Cru; Vertus and Cuis are Premiere Cru. All parcels are planted to Chardonnay, except for a small portion of the Vertus vineyard, where Pinot Noir is grown. The rosé contains 12% Pinot Noir from Vertus; the balance is Chardonnay blended from all the villages.

The first bottle stank of brett. Fortunately, there was a second bottle: gamey, meaty, grassy, with lots of minerals. Hints of red berry and kiwifruit developed on the palate over time. Don't let the “gamey/meaty” note fool you: This was light, elegant Champagne, showing lots of finesse.

Thanks to Ryan, Parris, and Cara for sharing their knowledge and insights. I listen to them and feel confident that the future of wine in Asheville is in good hands. And, of course, thanks as always to Les and Kathy for making this all possible. All the wines tasted are available, in varying states of limited quantity, at Vinsite.

PS: This Asimov guy is reviewing some of the same wines. You might want to check him out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

André Ostertag Veilles Vignes Sylvaner

André Ostertag is my kind of winemaker: He uses biodynamic methods, but prefers not to talk about them; he is deeply suspicious of the mystical aspects of biodynamic practice. And while this may classify him as a practical winemaker, he his hardly one who lacks imagination. For example, he has devised his own classification system. Domaine Ostertag produces 16 different wines classified in 3 different types: Vins de Fruit (Fruit wines), Vins de Pierre (Stone wines) and Vins de Temps (Time and Weather wines--typically, late harvest wines). He is very much a believer in terroir, and, as his classifications demonstrate, he understands how different aspects of terroir can come to the forefront in a wine's production.

He is also my kind of winemaker in that he not only grows the much-maligned Sylvaner grape, but treats it with respect and actually gets something good out of it. Most (but not all--see below) of those growing Sylvaner in Alsace are using it as a blender, where its neutrality, high acidity, and high yield are appreciated, although enthusiasm for the grape has diminished over time: 35 years ago it claimed about 30% of Alsace vineyards; today it is more like 10% (about 3,000 acres). Although it is thought to have originated in Transylvania, Sylvaner (or Silvaner)'s true homeland is southern Germany, far from the Mosel, where it makes the excellent Franken wines.

The Chef wanted to make an “easy” Sunday dinner with one guest, and decided to bake chicken on a bed of cabbage, apples, and sweet onion, spiced with juniper berries and allspice. Here's the link to her recipe. The cabbage/apple combination suggested something from Alsace, and when I went looking, my hand fell to a 2009 Domaine Ostertag “Les veilles vignes de Sylvaner.” It had a bit of cinnamon in the nose, along with notes of pear and yellow fruit. In the mouth, it tasted of pear (skin and flesh) and very forward mineralty. The overall impression mingled rich fruit flavor and crisp mineral character. Sylvaner is noted for high acidity; it was not particularly assertive here.  It played very nicely with the baked chicken, demanding no special attention to itself: It was very relaxing wine. This was made from 50-70 year old vines. Mindful of Ostertag's three classifications, I'm guessing this gets filed under Vins de Fruit, since the old vines bring the fruit to the fore, and I don't believe this is a wine intended for aging.  Kermit Lynch imports; we got this at Vinsite. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember how it was priced; it was well under $20.

There was an earlier encounter with excellent Sylvaner in these precincts; described here.

PS: I'm glad some of you enjoyed the games posted a while back. I don't know about you, but I find these little amusements helpful during the holiday season. So here's the Motherlode.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Shopping Guide? Really? (Updated) (Up-Updated)

For two whole years I have resisted the lure of crass commercialism. Well, that's enough of that. When they tell you virtue is its own reward, they're not just kidding around. Hey, don't take my word for it, ask Anthony Bourdain.

We all know the joke about establishing what kind of girl you are. When I start “monetizing” and linking to Amazon, then you'll know for sure. The only thing that holds me back right now is whether it's actually worth the money. We'll see. Without further adieu, here is the Wine Mule's Holiday Shopping Guide!

I like to read. These are worth reading:

The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides) (Hardcover). Andrew Jefford is a terrific writer, and his survey of French winemaking, published in 2002, is still amazingly up-to-date, anticipating the “natural” revolution that has taken so many French wine regions by storm. And there are some hidden treats. For example, in the section on the Loire is one of the clearest explanations of the biodynamic phenomenon, illustrated with some truly heretical commentary from Nicolas Joly. (I just looked at Amazon, and they're asking $90 a copy, used. So much for great gift ideas! Get it from your local library.)

Barolo to Valpolicella (Classic Wine Library) and Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Nicolas Belfrage is still the guy I turn to for the details of Italian wines. Again, these were published in 2003, yet they are still timely; none other than Josko Gravner (accurately described as a “radical”) makes an appearance in the section on Friuli. The second volume is especially worthwhile, although admittedly not for the casual reader--unless you're really, really interested in learning about the mediocrity of Sardinia's Nuragus grape. (Oh, this is ludicrous! Amazon wants $69 and $79 each, respectively, in paperback, used. See above.)

Oldman's Brave New World of Wine (Norton). Mark Oldman is a wine popularizer—a guy who writes about wine for Everyday with Rachael Ray and talks about it on TV for PBS. This book was damned with faint praise when it was released in October 2010, and it is true that his complicated charts and celebrity-fawning can be hard to take. On the other hand, he's hip to a lot of the up-and-coming wines and regions; the “Culinary Sweet Spot” gauge is pretty straightforward; and honestly, I'd buy it just for the pronunciation guides. (On sale for $13 at Amazon! This is more like it!)

Reading Between The Wines (University of California Press): Terry Theise is that rare thing, an importer who lives his convictions. He believes in Riesling, especially when it's from the Mosel, with a faith that is profound. He was an early advocate of Recoltant-Manipulant (now known as “Grower”) Champagne, and I feel tremendously grateful for that, because if it were not for Terry Theise, I might never have known the pleasures of Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvée Fiacre,” a wine that literally stunned me into silence when I first tasted it. He's also an advocate of Austrian wines, and was instrumental in introducing Americans to the joys of Gruner Veltliner. I don't know how to classify this book, except perhaps as a long love-letter to the land, the winemakers who work the land, and the wines themselves that have moved his soul. Personally, I have reservations about some of his ideas, but in the scheme of things, these are piffle. As I wrote to a colleague, "It has caused me to re-evaluate the way I evaluate." ($17 and change at Amazon. Well worth it.)

The Science of Wine: From Vine To Glass (University of California Press): Jamie Goode is very knowledgeable about wine, and has a PhD in plant biology. He's also a pretty astute writer. The combination of these qualities make this book very worthwhile, especially for those of us who never took an organic chemistry course. Popular discourse on the making of wine is rife with misinformation, disinformation, and plain ignorance. The Science of Wine is the only antidote I know that can be safely used by non-scientists. ($30 and change at Amazon; you'll make it back winning bar bets.)

Update: Terry Theise has reminded me that science is not static, and that Goode has updated some of the information that appeared in "Science of Wine." So I'm about to order a copy of his latest, "Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking." ($16 and change at Amazon.)

Up-Update: My friend Jeff Waggoner sent me a link to Eric Asimov's Holiday Reading Guide. Asimov is correct in noting that one of Goode's attributes is that he says "We don't know, because there's no research" quite often. This was the case in "The Science of Wine," too. On the other hand, I think he's read a little too much Alice Feiring, because Goode is absolutely not a stooge for anybody, certainly not Constellation or Diageo or any of the other big boys in the business.

PS: The Oldman book was a freebie, sent last season, from an obviously misguided publicist. I'm supposed to disclose this or risk fearsome penalties from the Federal Trade Commission.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Clos Roche Blanche L'Arpent Rouge Touraine 2010

Didier Barrouillet, former chemical engineer turned vigneron, and his partner Catherine Roussel, who inherited the land from her family--which had worked the land since the end of the 19th Century--run Clos Roche Blanche, a property of about 44 acres in Mareuil-sur-Cher, a village along the Cher river in the Touraine appellation. The soil there is clay and flint. Barrouillet practices minimal cultivation--the plough is used sparingly if at all. Everything is hand-picked, and fermented in a miscellany of vats and barrels. He prefers CO2 to SO2 as an anti-oxidant. He is a true believer in the power of terroir, as he explains in this quote from an interview:

"The wine I make is the consequence of my work in the vines. I almost never taste in the cellar, because I know what the end result will be. When I first started, I took no interest in the vineyard. But my natural evolution has led me to spend less and less time in the cellar. And this evolution continues in that today, I almost don't pay any attention to the vines and focus principally on what's happening in the soil. The vines are a direct consequence of what is happening in the soil." Read the whole interview here.

Clos Roche Blanche L'Arpent Rouge Touraine 2010: Made from 100% pineau d'aunis, from whatever juice is left over after making rosé (surely the only instance of this in all of winemaking!). I tasted this with Les at Vinsite. On the nose, we got herbs, cinnamon stick, face powder, floral bath salts, orchid, and lily. In the mouth, spicy clove ("Red hots!" said Les), sour cherry, barely ripe strawberry, and a distinct mineral character vaguely reminiscent of aspirin. The wine seems very fresh, very vibrant, very alive. I have been known to say that certain reds from the Loire had "the wild green thing." This one has it. It has been billed as a great "summer red" to be drunk slightly chilled on a warm afternoon. I plan to open some over the course of this winter, to remind me that summer will come again.

I was sorely tempted to not publish any tasting notes on this wine; the specific components of aroma and flavor are really beside the point. The reason to drink L'Arpent is to take your senses on a kind of virtual tour of the vineyards of the village of Mareuil-sur-Cher. When you hold the glass to your nose, and then to your lips, the wine is telling you what it's like to actually be there. It's a lot cheaper than plane tickets.

Another reason to enjoy this wine now is that Clos Roche Blanch is shrinking--a decision of the owners, who want to maintain close control over what they're doing in the vineyard. Scarcity will become an issue. (And a quick note to say that all is well on some of the property they sold off--it is being cultivated by the young and talented Noëlla Morantin.) For more on Clos Roche Blanche, read Chris Kissack's thoughtful report and read the notes and look at the pictures at Bernard Celce's website.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bodegas Bielsa: A "Natural" From Campo de Borja

Campo de Borja has nearly 20,000 acres planted to vines. The climate—dry with extremes of temperature (over 100° F to 19° F)--tends to produce big-bodied wines high in alcohol. Co-ops dominate, and with notable exceptions (Borsao Reserva, Fagus) tend to produce wines of excellent value but a certain predictability of style. But the “natural” forces are now at work in Campo de Borja, too. Judging from a newly imported garnacha, the new guys are raising the stakes.

Bodegas Bielsa Viñas Viejas 2009: This is 100% Old Vine (45 years and older) Garnacha, organically grown by winemaker Roberto Pérez on Rhone-like large pebbles (galets). Aromas and flavors of licorice, blackberry, strawberry jam, and earth make a full-frontal assault on the senses. I've been tasting a lot of Loire reds lately, and have grown used to parsing subtleties. Not necessary for this! What sets it apart from even the better conventionally produced garnachas from the region is complexity. That jumble of aromas and flavors just keep coming on and evolving in the glass. Although well-disguised, there is also some tannic structure at work here. At $12.50 (Vinsite) this really is a great value. Imported by Farm Wine Imports.

For your amusement: Forbes (Capitalist Tool) thinks the stuff is great, too. (You'll need to click through an ad.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oregon Wine History Video

Everybody who likes wine has an “Aha!” moment. Certainly everybody I know who works in the business has one of these stories to tell. Mine is short and simple: I was in San Francisco in 1979, reporting on a metals and mining conference (my chequered career, Part III, I think). One evening I went to Ernie's, which back in the day was quite the place. Probably for the first time in my life, I found myself actually studying the wine list (I was trying to impress somebody). I ordered a bottle of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, because I could pronounce the name. I don't remember much about it, except that I'd never had anything like it before, and it was really good with steak au poivre.

I'm telling this story to explain my relationship with wines from the American West Coast. Obviously, it was a product of the Napa Valley that set me off on what has turned into a life-long exploration of wine, which in turn led to my becoming a wine salesperson. Yet if it weren't for my friends who occasionally put a bottle in front of me, I probably would not drink anything from the West Coast at all. This is partly a matter of personal taste—I'm not a huge fan of Cabernet Sauvignon from anywhere, not even Bordeaux—and partly a practical professional decision. Most of the customers I dealt with over the years did not need or seek my advice on wines from the West Coast. And since hardly anyone ever asked, I pretty much let the whole subject go. I'm not proud of this; it's just how things played out.

The point of all this verbiage: Mike Veseth writes a blog called the Wine Economist; he is the Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound. I stumbled across this video on his site while looking for something else, and found it very affecting. Not enough to go out and buy a bottle of Ponzi, maybe, but then again, maybe I will. Note: The audio is poor for the first 1:30, then becomes normal.

Oregon Wine History


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Link-O-Rama (updated)

I've thought about doing something like this for a while. So what the hell:

Why I don't review Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Why patience is not merely a virtue, but provides tangible rewards.

Why if I could be anybody, I'd like to be Cathy Ho.

So you think you know France? Prove it!

A report from the Newspaper Of Record. ...and what really happened.

Not new, but still required reading.

…and since you all enjoyed the Vignobles game, here's another one. You can tell it's English, because there's a butler involved.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jura, Voilà!

The sit-down tasting of wines of the Jura, held at Vinsite last evening, came not a moment too soon for me. I'd brought a L'Octavin trousseau to Thanksgiving dinner, and it was a bust: Pale, wan, and fizzing with refermentation. So some faith-restoration was in order.

We began with a sparkler from Dejean & Fils, a Blanc de Blancs NV made from columbard, ugni blanc (trebbiano)--grapes usually associated with the Cotes de Gascogne--and folle blanche, one of the traditional cognac grapes. It was a fine palate-cleanser, with orchard fruit notes, just a touch of the cidery tang we expect from the Jura, and surprisingly fine perlage. Then it was on to the main event:

L'Octavin Chardonnay Pamina 2008: The nose was challenging: Roasted nuts, diesel (“Failing brakes!” from across the table), charcoal, and strong vegetal character. The palate was more conventional, with some healthy citrus and mineral character. Over time, the metal-and-hot-petroleum notes faded out, and the acidity moderated. This was produced by winemakers Alice Bouvot and Charles Dagand, who have been farming biodynamically in the Arbois appellation since 2008.

Bornard Savagnin les Chassagnes Ouille 2006: Opened with a complex nose of high herbs, Christmas spice, roasted nuts, pear, and a sweet yeasty note; on the palate, very pretty pear and citrus flavors, with a touch of sherry-like tang. Over the course of the tasting, the acidity moderated and the texture plumped up. Phillipe Bornard farms about 15 acres in the village of Pupillin, just south of the village of Arbois. Bonard was a disciple of Pierre Overnoy, a pioneer of natural winemaking.

Puffeney Poulsard M 2008: Berries, rose petals, spice, linseed oil, and maybe a hint of smoke on the nose. On the palate, red berries and citrus; with time in the glass, the fruit character really came forward. For a “light” red, this had a very pleasing mouthfeel. Andrew Jefford describes Jacques Puffeney thusly: “...a secret scholar, a quiet theorist, a practical researcher.” Puffeney's Arbois was the first red from the Jura I ever tasted. That first encounter is memorialized here.

Bornard Ploussard La Chamade 2008: Speaking of firsts, it has been more than 20 years since I tasted a Château de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape that had some serious age on it; I still remember trying to parse the nose for specific aromas, giving up, and feeling I'd failed some kind of test. Much later on, I realized that when a great wine has aged to the point of fully becoming itself, the component parts of the nose disappear into a kind of unity. At the time, I called it “incense.” Much to my astonishment, this impression came back to me tasting the Bornard Ploussard: While there were identifiable aromas of rose petal and red cherry, the overall impact was more like a fine perfume. This brief romance was brought up short as I heard from the table the words “cow poop,” and the meaty, fecal aroma of chitterlings began to come on strong. (This was not the end of this wine's organoleptic story--see below) By contrast, the palate was pretty simple and straightforward, with pretty red berries and cherries.

Gahier Trousseau 2009: Red licorice and some brown spice (cinnamon?) were the first notes of the nose; I also caught a hint of blueberry (often a sign of youthfulness). There were also some strawberry/raspberry aromas. Again, the palate was straightforward, with pleasant light red berry fruit, and a touch of oxidative and mineral character. Michel Gahier's property is located next to Jacques Puffeney's.

Tasting “Food Wines” 

Our hosts, Les and Kathy, were careful to put out bread, nuts, sausage, and a selection of cheeses to accompany the wines. The Chef, who was also in attendance, had me taste some of the wines with the cheeses and sausage. This was revelatory: The L'Octavin Chardonnay, in particular, was transformed after a bite of Tomme. Similarly, the stinky character of the Bornard Ploussard vanished when accompanied by a bite of sausage. Discussing this afterward with Cara and Brian, we agreed that tasting these wines without food did them a disservice. Cara also pointed to a common theme among the wines: They tended to have quite complex aromas, followed by relatively straightforward flavors.

As was the case with the Orange wines, the wines at this tasting are never going to be crowd-pleasers. They require some work to appreciate; they are not produced in volume; and they can be pricey. And, as with the Orange wines, they have their own peculiar charm, and they remind you that wine is a living thing, not something to be “branded” and hyped. On that basis alone I'd recommend giving any of these bottles a bit of your undivided attention. (If you're interested in trying any of them out, here's the link to Vinsite; as Les says, these are so hard to come by he can't get them in case quantities. Act now, etc.)

PS: As we know, tasting is the most subjective aspect of wine appreciation. I hope some of you who were also in attendance will chime in with comments, with the understanding that I reserve the right to be completely wrong-headed about any of the bottles we tasted!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Erbaceo: Biodynamic, Good Quality, From Puglia. Really.

2009 Erbaceo Colli della Murgia IGT Puglia: I was intending to taste the 2011 Beajolais Nouveau, but I got sidetracked when Les poured me a taste of this little charmer. It's a blend of 60% Fiano Minutolo and 40% Greco. The back label says “certified organic by ICEA,” and the producer was either the first or among the first to apply biodynamic growing methods in Puglia. Take a look at their website

The wine opens with a nose of ripe fruit, dried honey, and juniper berry. “Minutolo” is known for adding floral notes; they did not seem particularly pronounced. On the palate, vivid flavors of golden apple and peach, with a floral/herbal note at the end. Fat-textured, countered by good acidity. Quite fresh-tasting for a two-year-old white. The vineyards are in Gravina in Puglia, just south of the Alta Murgia National Park, about an hour's drive southwest from Bari. If I could find some razor clams, I think I'd like a bottle of this to go with them. Scallops will do.

It is cheering to think that wines of this quality are now available from Puglia. Tom Cannavan called Puglia “the engine room of Italian wine production,” churning out around 10% of Italy's total production. Even today, most of the production goes to bulk sales. When Franco Ventricelli and Francesco Valentino set up shop in 1986, even the natives dismissed the idea of quality wine from the region. There was Cantina Botromagno, and not much else. So they are to be congratulated both for their foresight and perseverance. An appreciation of the external difficulties a Southern Italian producers face can be found here.

Available at Vinsite, (check out their spiffy new site design) priced around $15, I think.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Henri Milan and Jesús Lazaro: French and Spanish Organics

Domaine Henri Milan is a wine estate in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Provence. Henri Milan has been running the estate since taking over from his father in 1986. He grows his white grapes in blue marl, soil similar to Chablis, with some clay and limestone and gravel. The total vineyards area is 42 acres (including red grape plantings). I had done a little bit of research on the wine. Jancis Robinson praised his 2004 effusively, but also called it “intellectual,” which as we know can be a warning flag for some. Brooklynguy called the 2007 vintage “polarizing.” So on Sunday evening, when I put a bottle down on the countertop at Bob & Sandy's, I announced that they had permission to hate it if need be.

Domaine Milan “Le Grand Blanc” (N/V, but probably 2008) Vin de Table, St Rémy de Provence: This was made from a blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino (even French people have a hard time pronouncing “Rolle”), and Roussanne. Milan is not certified biodynamic, but follows some biodynamic practices. A little cidery tang on the nose says there has obviously been some extended maceration here, although the wine doesn't look “orange.” Our first impressions were of gingerbread, almond, pear, and some very characteristic Southern Rhone floral character. In the mouth, the wine was tannic, oxidative, and showing some flavor of grapefruit zest, with an almost grainy texture. Our next impressions, after about 20 minutes, were of more conventional apricot, anise, and dried honey flavors. At the 90 minute mark, the wine became luscious: The oxidative notes receded, the texture softened, and a rich aroma and flavor of ripe honeydew melon came to the fore (reminiscent of the super-ripe cantaloupe flavor of the Radikon Oslavje Bianco from the Orange wine tasting).

While I was more than happy with the journey the wine took us on, I think next time we'll decant for at least an hour beforehand.

Dinner featured smoked duck; I was invited to look in the cellar for something appropriate, and found a bottle I'd sold to our hosts, back in 2008, I think. The duck was going to want something with some power behind it, and Ribera del Duero is usually a good bet. Thus:

Adrada Ecologica Raices de Aza, Ribera del Duero 2004: This wine made a brief appearance in the portfolio of importer José Pastor. It was made at Adrada Ecologica, a certified-organic producer in Ribera del Duero, by Jesús Lazaro. Lazaro works the vineyard as well as makes the wine, which Pastor points out is quite rare in Spain these days. It is 100% Tempranillo, made from head-pruned vines of 70 to 80 years of age, all grown at high elevations on a single estate. It was aged in French oak for 12 months. Sandy likes a big red wine that has lots of secondary and tertiary flavors; this one offered many, including smoke, earth, roasted spice, and vanilla to go along with red, blue, and black fruit flavors and aromas. It was remarkably pure-tasting, and we were surprised at the softness of the tannins. “Raices de Aza”
translates as "Roots of the Town."

2004 is widely regarded as one of the better recent Spanish vintages. Pastor notes that while the 2005 vintage was a dry one, with attendant problems with under-ripeness, wines made on old, draught-resistant vines like those on Lazaro's property may show more refinement and elegance. (A brief search showed no bottles from either vintage still available at retail, although I would be happy to be proved wrong about this.) Read Alice Feiring's appreciation of José Pastor here. 

After dinner there was Trimbach Poire William. The Trimbachs have a reputation in Alsace for relatively austere wines; obviously, they have no such compunctions when it comes to fruit brandies. It was like drinking liquid bosc pear.

After the after-dinner drinks, the Chef snagged the duck carcass. You can learn its fate here.

 The Henri Milan was from Table Wine; the Raices de Aza was from The Asheville Wine Market.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Chef's Birthday (Champagne and Barolo)

It was the Chef's birthday, so the Chef got to eat exactly what she wanted (not that any other day is different in this regard...), which was, surprisingly, steak. She also got to drink exactly what she wanted, which was Champagne, and “a really nice Italian red” to go with the steak.

Back before he opened the New York store and became even busier than he was with the Pennsauken and Wilmington stores, the illustrious Greg Moore of Moore Brothers sometimes wrote wonderful rants about the business. It was reading one of these rants, on the depredations of certain Grande Marque Champagne houses, and especially one that produced a wine that came in a sort of Halloween orange label, that I learned about José Michel. Here's Greg:

José Michel (pronounced “Zhozáy” in French, not “Hozáy,” as in Spanish) farms 21 acres of vineyards around the town of Moussy, a small village just south of Épernay, on hillsides that face the Côte des Blancs (you can see Jacques Diebolt’s vineyards from José’s exceptional single vineyard, Clos des Plants de Chênes). He grows all three varieties: Chardonnay planted in the lower vineyards with calcareous soil, and Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir in the upper vineyards that have more clay in the soil. Fermentations are carried out in old oak casks or enameled steel vats. 
 José Michel is best known as the foremost récoltant-manipulant (estate-bottling producer) of Champagnes that are made from Pinot Meunier, a variety that gives lovely floral-toned, red fruit aromas in Champagne, but that is decidedly unfashionable with most producers. Many Champagne houses are reluctant even to admit that they use Pinot Meunier in their blends. They believe it doesn’t live long enough in the bottle. José Michel proves them wrong. In fact, the Blanc de Blanc, made from Chardonnay grown in several different plots in and around Moussy, and the Clos des Plants de Chênes, also planted to Chardonnay, are the only exceptions to the rule that the entire range of vigorous, longlived José Michel Champagnes is based on Pinot Meunier. 

A few years back, Michel's 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne became available, and I did my best to put it into the hands of as many people as possible while working at the Asheville Wine Market. It was the kind of Champagne that made friends: It was $39.99, and it was distinctive without being off the charts. I used to tell people it would give them an instant Hip Merit Badge. I still believe that.

So imagine my delight when I walked into Table Wine back during the summer and Josh put a bottle of 2002 José Michel “Spécial Club” in my hands. It's a 50/50 blend of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, made from fruit grown on vines that were planted by José's grandfather in 1929. On the nose, notes of tangerine, meyer lemon, bittersweet chocolate, red berries, and cashews. On the palate, strawberry mousse, citrus zest, and bracing mineral character. On the finish, more minerals and hints of red berry. The wine gave an initial impression of sweetness, which faded into the intense mineral character.

Then it was time for a really nice Italian red.

Azelia Barolo 2000: Luigi Scavino, in the words of Nicolas Belfrage, makes “wine of modern tendency.” He's not certified organic, but he keeps the use of copper sulfate to a minimum, and when he uses fertilizer, it's organic. He uses French oak, but only a little; he tends to shorter periods of maceration, so his wines don't have the huge tannic structure that can make Barolo difficult to enjoy without long bottle aging.

There are lots of people who will tell you that opening an 11-year-old Barolo is a form of infanticide. (We try to avoid people who speak this way about wine; we think they lack a sense of proportion, but then we're just a bunch of moldy figs here anyway.) We did give it a few vigorous whirls in the decanter, just to show that we meant business, but in the event the wine showed beautifully, with the classic aroma combo of roses, red berries, truffly funk, and just a hint of asphalt. In the mouth there was a near-perfect balance of fruit, tannin, and acidity, with a surprisingly soft texture. The classic match for Barolo is wild boar, but grass-fed steak sauced with a beef and veal demi-glace with red wine reduction was just lovely. (Now you know why the Chef likes to cook her own birthday dinner.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beef Stew, Not The Worst Wine After All, A Bargain, A Disappointment, And An Italian Merlot a la française

Pelee Island is the southernmost Canadian vineyard, as they like to say, on the same latitude as the Napa Valley (and the Macôn). The bottle pictured above was the gift, after a fashion, of a Canadian customer. “This is the worst wine I've ever tasted,” she said, handing it to me. I promised I'd give it due consideration, and for the last four years or so it's been in the cellar, considering itself. The Chef was making boeuf à la Bourguignonne and hollered from the kitchen that she needed a cheap Pinot Noir for the pot. Somehow, I knew exactly what to reach for (I also reached for a backup bottle—another Pinot, this time from Patagonia—just in case). With no little trepidation we tasted it—and it was...Pinot Noir. A bit dilute, and just starting to show a little brown on the rim, but fine for the pot, which is where it went.

Les and Kathy brought some bottles. We started with a sparkler from the Marches, made by Garofoli from Chardonnay and Verdicchio. Guelfo Verde Vino Frizzante 2010 is light, gently fizzy, had some nice orchard fruit notes and a sturdy mineral finish. It was delightful, and became even more delightful when we found out it was priced at $9.99.

The featured wine with our beef stew was an els jelipins 2004. It is a “natural” wine, a blend of two grapes, the rare Sumoll (60%) and garnacha (40%). It is produced in the Penedès by the young and attractive Glòria Garriga & Oriol Illa, who hand-pick, making passes through the vines at various intervals, ferment at low temperatures with indigenous yeasts, and age the wine for 30 months in old French and Slavonian oak vats. Now you know we were primed to fall pantingly in love with this wine, but this particular bottle wasn't quite there. I got a little whiff of peppermint candy on the nose, which was…unusual. It was nicely textured, and had some red and black fruit to it, as well as some notes of sweet spice and cocoa. But there just wasn't all that much going on. Les and Kathy, who'd had it before, were clearly disappointed; Les said the last bottle had been much more substantial. Maybe the stew was too much for it. Although one does not like to be in the position of making excuses for a $90+ bottle. Then again, the whole point of natural wines is that they are not factory-made products, and there will be bottle variation. And as has been noted in this space before, managing expectations can be a bitch.

Feeling a bit let down, I went back to the cellar and pulled out another bottle that had been gathering dust—a merlot picked up on a visit to Tuscany in 2004, that made its way back to the U.S. during that Golden Age before the damned three-ounce rule: Fattoria La Rendola IGT Merlot 2001, from the winery of the same name, in the village of Montevarchi, not too far from Arezzo.

The wine was made by the highly regarded Fabrizio Moltard, a consultant agronomist, native of Piemonte, who moved to Tuscany to work for Angelo Gaja then went out on his own. These days he consults with many wineries in Maremma. He's the go-to guy if you're growing French grapes around Scansano. You'll recall that in the mid 1990s French grapes aged in French oak were all the rage in certain parts of Tuscany; everybody wanted to get on the Super Tuscan bandwagon. Fattoria La Rendola was no exception, and they brought in Dottore Moltard to produce wine in the Bordeaux style, and that's what they got with the 2001 IGT Merlot: Red plum, blackcurrant, and lead pencil on the nose, a silky-textured palate with more plum and a touch of cocoa, and a nice lift of acidic red berry on the finish. With air, it developed a creamy richness, at which point it became a little too much of a good thing.

It's tempting to try to find a moral here about the calculatedness of what Fabrizio Moltard does for a living vs. the deliberate lack of calculation at els jelipins, but it's only two bottles, folks. And I don't want Tom Wark to get mad at me for suggesting that winemakers might have any motivations beyond wanting to sell what they make. I have to admit that despite some recent disappointments, as a class, I find the “natural” stuff very appealing these days. How're they gonna keep me down in Paree, now that I've seen the farm?

The els jelipins and the Guelfo Verde are available at Vinsite.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Offal Experience

Last night we ate testicles. And penises. And duck hearts and tongues. We ate pig's ears, pig's blood, cockscombs, tongue, veal brains with cauliflower/bone-marrow puree, ox heart with cockles, and kidney, cheek, and tail pie.

This was a “pop-up” dinner by the Blind Pig Of Asheville, a group of chefs and miscellaneous other crazies who take a transgressive approach to cuisine. Matt Dawes (of Table) and Jeremy Hardcastle (the new Hot Dog King of Asheville) did the cooking. The carnage took place at City Bakery.

For more on the eats and some background on the Blind Pig Supper Club, check out Mackensy Lunsford at MountainX.

The event was BYOB, and several malefactors from the local scene showed up with organic lambruscos and cavas, Arbois wine from the Jura, a killer Cote du Rhone (La Ferme du Mont Cotes du Rhone Premiere Cote 2009), a sleek Ca'Marcanda from Maremma (Tuscan coastline) from Angelo Gaja, of all people, and a bunch of other stuff. We brought a Danilo Thomain Enfer d'Arvier which had suffered a bit of secondary fermentation. It was drinkable, just. For those who were asking about the grape, I mis-identified it: It's Petite Rouge, not Petite Arvine.

We also brought one of two bottles of Mas d'Agalis Yo No Puedo Mas (Russell Garrett from Sour Grapes brought the other one) which for me, at least, was the vinous highlight of the evening. The name translates as “I Can't Take Anymore” and reflects the sentiments of young winemaker Lionel Maurel, who produces this blend of 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre at his family's property in the village of Nébian, which is in the Hérault appellation of the Languedoc. Not that you'd know it from the label—the INAO has declared his organically produced wine Too Strange for the regular appellation, and insists that he label it as “vin du pays” and not give vintage information (the vintage is displayed in roman numerals—ours was VIII). In the event, the wine showed the kind of rusticity you want when you're eating offal: Aromas of game and the barnyard, spice and red fruit, followed by more solid dark fruit, earth, and a nice bite of acidity. I've seen it on the shelf at Table Wine and Vinsite, about $20 and I'm guessing it will be an essential beverage for the next Blind Pig outing.

BYOB! Yeah!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Loire vs. Languedoc

I know, I know, it seems I just toggle from one obsession to another. Now we're back at the old French North/South rivalry. The area where the Vienne meets the Loire--Saumur, Bourgueil, and Chinon--is capable of producing red wines of plainspoken elegance, and even a kind of self-effacement. I can think of some Bourgueil wines--"Les Galluches" from James Petit comes to mind--that don't really express themselves fully except in the context of a meal. Or as former colleague Elaine Thomas said, "This wine wants dinner and candlelight!"

Then there's the South, especially Languedoc/Roussillon, where hot sun, drying winds, and an abundance of soil types can result in wines that show an abundance of fruit and spice. Sometimes I think the job of the winemaker in this part of the world is to keep all that abundance in check, lest a bit of playful hedonism become debauchery.

Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur Saumur Champigny 2009: Black cherry, hint of cranberry, “cool” herbs, then firm cherry fruit on a lightish frame, and somewhat subdued tannins, well-balanced. The 2009 is a pleasure to drink on its own, but showed best with food; in this instance, the Chef's “fake Cassoulet.” (“It's not traditional, and doesn't have all the traditional ingredients.”) Winemaker Eric DuBois has gradually shifted to organic growing practices and minimal intervention during fermentation, including keeping the use of SOto a minimum. Click here to learn more about his winemaking and enjoy the wonderful photography of Bertrand Celce.

Chateau de Lascaux Coteaux du Languedoc 2008: A blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Grenache, and 5% Mourvèdre. Black pepper, herbs, and red berries on the nose; quite luscious on the palate with more red fruit and a creamy mouthfeel. Little kick of spicy pepper and acidity at the finish; lovely stuff, and at $19/bottle, reasonably priced. A Wine Dictator Spectator “Top 100” pick, but worthwhile even so. It's easy to understand why the Spec gives it a big score; it really is a pretty "easy" wine, where the fruit borders on voluptuousness, and the oak gives it a polish like a newscaster's hair. Yet there's enough complexity here to let the maquillage slide by. (Besides, sometimes we're in the mood for maquillage.) This is made by Jean-Benoît Cavalier, President of AOC Languedoc, which is doing away with the “Coteaux du Languedoc” appellation, not sure why, except to keep us all as confused as possible about Southern Provence wines. You'll find more here about M. Cavalier and his activities.

 As of this writing, both wines are in stock at the Asheville Wine Market.

Monday, October 31, 2011

An "Ir de Tapeo" in Seville with Shawn Hennessey; and other Adventures

Our Seville story begins with Shawn Hennessey, a Canadian expat, ex-fashionista, now proprietor of a website called “Azahar-Sevilla.” She is, to use a somewhat antiquarian expression, a woman of parts. She writes, she teaches, she leads culinary tours, and probably a lot else that she doesn't necessarily let on about. What we know for sure is that if you visit Seville, you want her at your side when it's time to eat. She took us to the good places, steered us to the house specialties, and coached us on the rhythm of the ir de tapeo, or tapas tour: Step into the place, pick the two best items in the house, have a glass of something, and then move on to the next adventure. We ate cigalas and oysters at Modesto, morcilla and veal cheeks at Enrique Becerra, and various postmodern dishes at Albarama. We ended up at 2 a.m on the roof of the Hotel Doña Maria, facing the Giralda cathedral tower, pleasantly drunk and basking in the soothing rays of the full moon.

Shawn Hennessey. A woman with duende

In the event, that evening was just a warmup, because Shawn had all sorts of great ideas for us. I'm going to skip over Vineria San Telmo, Casa Antonio, and the delightful La Bodega (which became our “local” for the week), marvelous though they all were, and go straight to the best of the best: La Azotea.

 It's a tiny place on a street called Jesus del Gran Poder, in what is euphemistically referred to as a “neighborhood in transition” near the Alameda de Hercules. The place opens at 9 pm, and unlike other restaurants in Seville, which tend to start off slowly and really get rolling after 10:30, there is a crowd waiting for the door to open. We went two nights: Wednesday, the place was packed within 15 minutes; Thursday, within 5 minutes. We will stipulate that everything we tried was of surpassing excellence. We ordered a parade of tapas, and it is no exaggeration to say that we finished every dish thinking “How can they top this?” and were repeatedly delighted with the answer. The chef's name is Jesús Rosendo Domingues. As the lovely Elena told us, “He did not go to culinary school. He grew up in his father's bar.” His food is phenomenal.
He's back there, at la ventana (the window), behind the dupes...Jesús Rosendo Domingues. A chef to watch for.

Elena gives us The Professional Smile. 

 The wine-by-the-glass list was deep, interesting, and priced right; I don't recall anything that cost more than 4 euros.

Our favorite wine at La Azotea was a 2009 Tempranillo from the Cigales D.O. Called “13 Cántaros Nicolás,” it was a gamey, meaty, spicy, jammy red-fruit wine that was completely delicious with morcilla (blood pudding), bull's tail, and other fine bits of Andalusian offal. The name comes from a document found on the wall at Bodegas César Príncipe (the winery) that referred to a debt of 13 “pitchers” of wine owed to a certain Nicholas. Who Nicholas was, and why he was owed the specific amount of wine, is lost to history. The Bodega, like others in the Cigales appellation, once produced rosé wines only; it wasn't until 2000 that the first reds were produced for sale. César Muñoz is the winemaker. The wine is 100% Tempranillo, aged 8 months in French and American oak. Cigales is considered a rising star in the D.O. Firmament; most of it is along the Pisuerga, a tributary of the Duero. Like Ribera del Duero, it has a very dry climate with extremes of temperature, ideal for growing Tempranillo and Garnacha vines that produce wines of great power. The wine is brought into the U.S. by Vinum Wine Importing.

Another favorite was a bottle from something called the “Proyecto Garnachas de España” (Spanish Grenache Project), a 2009 La Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo (Ribera del Queiles). Winemaker Raul Acha produces garnacha in a variety of styles and terroirs within the Ebro Delta, a large area (not a Denominación de Origen) that encompasses several appellations, including Aragon, Priorat, and Rioja. Ribera del Queiles is a sub-appellation of Aragon. The Garnacha Salvaje (“Salvaje” translates as “wild”) was soft and round and not in the least sauvage or rustic, similar in style to the better Garnachas of the Campo de Borjas region, with pretty strawberry and plum notes, and the aforementioned roundness thanks to five months' aging in French oak. The wine is in limited distribution in the U.S. by St. Louis-based Bakkehia Imports.

Juan, with a Legal Smile. 

We sat at the bar, and chatted with our neighbors. The Chef sat next to a couple from The Netherlands, who were just finishing up a 12-day tour. I sat next to a guy from Queens who was interested in sherry, and who inadvertently provided one of the evening's many highlights: Juan (an exceptionally personable young man, a native of Seville, who owns the place with his wife, Jeanine, who is from California) brought him an unlabeled bottle of something golden. I asked what it was, and he waved it in front of me so I could see that there really was no label, and announced “Arab herb liquor! Illegal!” Well, we just had to have some too, didn't we?

Dave, with an Illegal Smile.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Orange: The Fourth Color

From a strictly contemporary viewpoint, you could say that “orange” wines were tailor-made for the wine hipster cognoscenti: Rare, not inexpensive, “difficult,” and demanding. The fascination with these wines in the U.S. can safely be attributed to one man, Levi Dalton, who held the first-ever orange wine dinner in midsummer 2009 at the now-legendary (and now-defunct) Convivio in New York City. You can read Thor Iverson's take on that historic event here. (Iverson can be long-winded, but always in an entertaining and informative way. Stay with him, and learn.)

Since that first tasting, there have been a few more around the country, but not many. The conservative consensus estimate is less than a dozen. So when Les Doss and Kathy Taylor announced an orange wine tasting at Vinsite, some of us were pretty jazzed about it--especially having it here in little ole Asheville.

From an historical viewpoint, “orange” wines have a very practical origin. Saša Radikon, son of Stanko, grandson of Franz Mikulus, explains: “In 1995 we started making white wines with lengthy periods of skin contact. This was a technique that my grandfather used because he wanted to preserve his wine for a whole year. Before my father started selling our wines, my grandfather would make wine for the whole family from our vines, but this was for personal consumption only and it had to last an entire year until the next vintage.” [from an interview with the late Joe Dressner].

Lengthy skin-contact, of course, is what makes red wines red. It seems to make white wines orange, and hence the name. Leaving the wines on the skins (maceration) for weeks and months makes white wines last longer because the skins are a source of tannins, which act as anti-oxidants. There is a catch: While lengthy maceration protects the wine from oxidizing over the long term, the process itself actually increases oxidation during fermentation. Consequently, the wines all have a distinctive oxidative tang that can come across as sherry-like or cider-like. Yet another catch: While the wines are built to last, especially after they've been opened, they typically need hours and hours of exposure to air to become palatable. The wines at the Visite tasting were all opened and double-decanted four hours ahead of time; some of them would probably benefit from two or three times as much exposure to air.

Got all that? Good. On to the wines:

Coenobium Rusticum Bianco 2009: Made from a blend of malvasia, grechetto, trebbiano toscano, and verdicchio, fermented in stainless steel tanks, and left on the skins for 15 days. Aromas of raisins, sassafras, and roasted nuts, followed by a palate of all kinds of dried fruits, the barest hint of melon, and big, bold tannins. For background on the Cistercian nuns who make these wines, read Alder Yarrow's excellent backgrounder. It is worth noting that the appellation for this wine is Lazio, a region north of Rome known mostly for “Est! Est! Est!”--a wine whose name is far more distinctive than what's in the bottle.

Denavolo Dinavolo Vino da Tavola 2007: This wine is a personal project of Giulio Armani, best known for his work at La Stoppa, a producer of high-end wines, mostly from French grapes, in the village of Piacenza near Bologne. The Denavolo vineyards in Emilia (another not very distinguished wine region) are at 1,500 feet, an exceptionally high elevation for the area, and are biodynamically farmed. As is the case at La Stoppa, Armani is working with some unusual grape varieties. The Dinavolo blend is 25% malvasia di candia aromatica, 25% marsanne, 25% ortugo, and 25% “yet unknown varietals.” These are 28-year-old vines. The wine is naturally fermented in stainless steel tanks over 7-14 days on the skins, with vigorous pumping-over for the first few days. No SO₂ is added, and the finished wine is unfiltered. The nose offered a strong note of apricot, and also of camphor (“Vicks Vapo-Rub!” said one taster. We agreed.) There were floral notes and what our colleague Cara Freije called “vitamins.” The palate resists any kind of conventional description; there were some dark, spicy, fruity notes, and a whole lot of tannins.

Paolo Bea Arboreus Bianco 2004: This is the very first vintage of this wine, made from trebbiano spoletino, a high-end version of Italy's ubiquitous workhorse white grape, grown on 125-year-old vines. The vines are trained high (“Arboreus” is from the Italian word for “tree”) and artichokes are grown beneath them. The wine spends 16 days on its skins, and is aged for four years after that. We tasted bottle #0394 of 1,066 produced. Of all the wines tasted, this was the most conventional in style, with very agreeable notes of apple, pear, and orange zest (“An orange wine that tastes of orange!” was heard at the table), followed by notes of fermented soy, some deep, dark, dried honey character, a slight vinegary note, and a bit of salinity at the finish. For background on the Bea family and their winery, visit their website, which is chock-full of useful information (just like their wine labels).

Radikon Oslavje Bianco 2003: This was made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, grown on the Radikon family's 26-acre property in Oslavia, a small Italian town right at the border with Slovenia. Cara Freije's notes on this wine were far more evocative than my own, so here they are: “Of all the wines, this had the most vinegary quality; it reminded me of a gueuze [a style of Belgian lambic ale known for its dry, cidery, musty, sour, acetic/lactic acid flavors], and even looked like one—kind of cloudy. Did you ever eat a cantaloupe that was just past its prime? Still sweet, but with an extra funk to it? This had some of that, also.”

Gravner Breg Anfora Bianco 2003: Josko Gravner (neighbor of Stanko Radikon) made a splash in the wine world in 2001 when he reached back thousands of years to revive the technique of fermenting his wines in amphorae (very, very large terra-cotta vases). In the style of the ancients, he lines the amphorae with beeswax, then buries them in the ground up to their necks, where the wine remains on its skins for months, before being transferred to oak barrels for two or more years of ageing. The Breg is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. It is the darkest of the wines at the tasting, showing a deep cherry color, closer to cognac than to wine. It has a nose like cognac, also, showing notes of roasted nuts and caramel. There is also a kind of peaty quality, reminiscent of Scotch whisky. The palate continues these impressions, with some dried honey notes and the barest hint of maraschino cherry.

There were 23 particpants in the tasting, which had been advertised a couple weeks in advance and sold out quickly. The wines came from several different sources; special thanks to Mike Tiano of Haw River Wine Man, who brings in the Coenobium and Paolo Bea wines, and was on hand to provide insights into the world of orange. Special thanks also to Cara Freije of Wisdom Beverages, who generously shared her meticulous tasting notes. And thanks again to Les Doss, who seems at times to be single-handedly bringing Asheville into the wine vanguard.

photo by the Chef

A few thoughts: Orange wines, clearly, are never going to be very popular. They are idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. They require patience (many hours of decanter time before drinking) and some serious sensory open-mindedness. They simply are not comparable to conventional red, white, or rosé wines. They are various in aromas and flavors, although Cara points out that there is some commonality in that they all had aromas that promised sweetness, yet were dry (some to the point of astringency) on the palate. None of these wines are produced in great quantity; all of them are priced north of $30, some quite a bit more than that. There is also the matter of pairing these with food: What goes with a big tannic white? The Radikons like their wines with the local pork ragù; Levi Dalton made history by serving sea urchin pasta at his tasting. Perhaps it is best to say that the field is wide open to experimentation. And for all these obvious reservations, these wines hold a powerful attraction, too. Drinking them is an adventure, and some of us are looking for exactly that kind of experience. They have that wild, feral, untameable quality that makes you sit up and pay attention. They are alive, and they make you feel alive. Salud!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Domaine des Deux Anes

Magali and Dominique Terrier, of Domaine des Deux Anes, are “natural” winemakers based in the village of Peyriac-de-mer, about a 20-minute drive south of Narbonne. Their property is close to a national park, and sits on the Etang du Doul, a salt-water pond that eventually feeds out into the Mediterranean. They follow biodynamic principles, promoting healthy soil with composts rather than chemical fertilizers, fighting powdery mildew with seaweed extract, managing yields by pruning vigorously, and picking by hand.

While the vineyard practices are very hands-on, the winery is quite modern, using temperature controlled stainless steel vats with controls that sensitively monitor the indigenous yeast-induced fermentation. Sulphur use is kept to a minimum, and all other additives are excluded.

The Domaine des Deux Anes “Premiers Pas” Corbières 2008 is a blend of carignan and grenache, grown on red clay with limestone on vineyards that slope toward the Etang. The nose is pleasingly rustic, with notes of sweet herbs, minerals, pomegranate, and an animal aroma that is referred to at our house as “roadkill,” in a non-pejorative way. On the palate, red and blue berries, and a mingling of herbs and licorice. As we never tire of saying of wines from this area, there is richness without heaviness. No trees were harmed in the production of this wine. It matched well with ribs rubbed with five-spice powder.

The wine is imported by Jenny & Francois, who have come a very long way since 2004, when a tasting of their “natural” wines turned into a clinic on wine faults! You can learn more about Magali and Dominique Terrier here.

For a wine of limited production (1,600 cases) this seems to be widely available. We got it at Vinsite, and I think I've seen it at the Asheville Wine Market and at Table Wine.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Asheville Sherry Shopping Bulletin

OK, I went to Spain and got a little bit nuts on sherry. I will try not to beat this horse to death, but I am absolutely going to ride it for a little while. At the moment, there are two fine local opportunities for trying out these wines: Vinsite, where Les Doss has the La Cigarrera manzanilla, produced only in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and the La Garrocha fino, produced in El Puerto de Santa María, at the mouth of the Guadalete, just southwest of Jerez (these are among the dryest, lightest sherries, although La Cigarrera gets an asterisk for power). Les also has the super-rich El Maestro Sierra Pedro Ximénez sweet sherry, and the Cesar Florido “El Dorado” Moscatel, from the little beach town of Chipiona, just down the road from Sanlúcar. The Moscatel is not sherry, but it is from the area, and is well worth making an exception for.

The other great local opportunity, and you really want to Act Now as they say on the infomercials, is at the Asheville Wine Market, where Eb has the very latest, freshest shipment of two sherries from Bodegas Lustau: The Puerto Fino and the Papirusa Manzanilla. I took a bottle of the Papirusa home, and can confirm that this is as fresh as it gets—it tastes just like the manzanillas we drank from the barrels in Seville and Sanlúcar: Yeasty, briny, and actually showing a bit of orchard fruit. The finish is clean, soft, and demands another sip. The ideal accompaniment would be fresh shrimp—not too big!--fried quickly in a very light batter (see photo below). If that's too ambitious, there's always a handful of marcona almonds and some of those Ybarra stuffed olives.

Any of these wines will serve at very least as a great introduction to the world of sherry; as is obvious, I find them exceptionally pleasurable to drink, and excellent values for money.

Casa Balbino, the best tapas bar in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and a fine place to drink manzanilla.

Tortillitas de Camarones from Casa Balbino; in our estimation the ideal food to enjoy with a cold glass of fresh Manzanilla.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"A Farmer's Wine Dinner"

While The Chef and I were in Seville (of which more later, I promise), I got a note from Josh Spurling of Table Wine in Asheville asking us to be his guests at an event billed as "A Farmer's Wine Dinner." That got a fast "yes" out of us, and a quick post to the calendar on the iPhone. This was a Good Thing, as we began the next day immersing ourselves in the joys of eating and drinking in Spain, and forgot entirely about everything related to our lives back home. Yeah, it was a great time, a description of which will eventually occupy many megabytes and pixels here.

The dinner was last night, and it was the kind of event we like best: A complete surprise, in the best possible sense. Now, as you know, I am an advocate for wine dinners. Wine's highest calling is as an accompaniment to food; thus, wine dinners put wine in the most appropriate context. That's one reason for advocacy. Another one is we like to eat and drink and have a good time. Anyway, I've been to a lot of 'em, but never one quite like this: It was held at the store, it was very casual (folding chairs and tables, paper plates, self-serve) and the owner did all the cooking. Well, almost all. Josh made a soup (a puree of butternut squash, sweet potato, and ginger--at once subtle and substantial) and a nifty slow-braised pork loin. The redoubtable George Lowe produced a puttanesca sauce-based vegetable lasagna, which we enjoyed greatly, even in the face of our own prejudicial belief that a lasagna that does not contain a pork product is not really lasagna at all.

Why “Farmer”? Because all the food (and some of the wine) was organically farmed.

As an apéritif, Josh poured a pair of sparklers, both of which are old friends: Domaine de Martinolles Blanquette de Limoux, made in the traditional style, mostly from the local Mauzac grape, with a little bit of chardonnay and chenin blanc; and Domaine du Pas St. Martin Saumur Blanc, made from chenin blanc. The former had aromas and flavors of citrus and apple, with a little yeasty, slightly oxidized character, and the latter with similar fruit qualities, plus that good mineral quality we expect in wines from the Loire.

The reds included Pierre Chermette's basic Beaujolais, a nice little berry bomb, possibly the world's most food-friendly red wine (which is why every bistro in France pours one); a wonderful Cahors (the original home of malbec, as has been discussed at length elsewhere) made by the highly regarded Philippe Bernède of Clos La Coutale, a modernist whose vineyards have been in his family since before Napoleon, and who uses stainless steel and temperature control and a dollop of merlot to produce this early-drinking gem; and a fat, rich, fruity Coteaux du Languedoc, a Rhone-like blend of Syrah and Grenache, from winemaker Gerald Bru of Chateau Puech-Haut.

The standout of the evening, though, was a beautiful white Burgundy, the Domaine du Prieuré Savigny les Beaune from the Maurice family (Jean-Michel and his son Stephen). It is made in what I call, for lack of a better term, the “clean” style of chardonnay: Bold apple and citrus aromas and flavors, distinct mineral character, moderate body, and not a hint of the hazelnut note that is a common calling-card of whites from the region. It was the most expensive bottle of the evening, but quite possibly the best value, since it compares favorably with village-level Burgundies that cost twice as much.

As they say in the colorful patois of my homeland, it was a Wicked Good Time, and thanks to Josh, the lovely Lynn, and First Mate George for a great evening. It was inspiring. In fact, it's inspired me to start paying more attention to the local scene than before.

To which end: There is another wine dinner/tasting coming up very soon (Wednesday, October 12) of wines from importer Neal Rosenthal's French portfolio. It will be in two parts; a tasting at Vinsite, followed by dinner at Table. Rosenthal's Trey Stephenson will be on hand to pour. Price is $65/person, all-inclusive except tax. Call Les at Vinsite (828.252.4545) for details.

Our host.

Our hostess.

Lasagna-maker extraordinaire, George Lowe.