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.