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.)

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