Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dinner at Rouge Tomate, or A Love Song To Pascaline

The Chef and I went to New York last weekend to attend the anniversary of some old friends. We had a night free, and when I asked some local wine folk where to go for dinner, the consensus pick was Rouge Tomate. With another old friend, M. Thomas, we sat down at one of the very spacious booths. M. Thomas and The Chef checked out the menu and you know what I did. The wine list is extensive, and exclusively organic. My eye fell upon the half-bottle list for something to start with:

Franz Hirtzberger "Rot Tor" Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 2011: Franz Hirtzberger represents the fifth generation of his family to work vineyards in the town of Spitz at the western end of the Wachau valley in Austria. "Rot Tor" means "red gate," red as in blood: The gate was the scene of bloody fighting against Swedish invaders back in the 1650s (not that anyone still holds a grudge…). The soil in the vineyard--designated for federspiel and smaragd production (roughly equivalent to premier and grand cru)--contains a mix of gneiss, mica, schist, and brown soil (loamy stuff containing organic matter and rock that provides good drainage). Viticulture is organic, and all fruit is hand-picked, only at full maturity--harvesters make as many as five passes through the vineyard to achieve this. The wine is fermented in stainless, then matured in large wood casks. Because he is at the cooler western end of the Wachau, his wines are highly regarded for their mineralic character and purity of fruit. Our bottle lived up to the billing, with aromas and flavors of earthy peach, green apple, white pepper, and a hint of tropical fruit, all underpinned by firm mineralic character, and all wrapped in a richly textured framework.

It is always pleasant to get lucky on a first bottle, and useful not to push your luck. So I had a chat with the sommelier, the lovely and knowledgeable Pascaline Lepeltier. You can read her story at the Rouge Tomate website.  I was thinking about a Montlouis from Francois Chidaine for the upcoming seafood courses; she suggested instead something not quite so acidic:

De Moor "D'Autres Vallées" 2011: We were familiar with the work of Chablis iconoclasts Alice and Olivier De Moor through their wonderful “Bel Air et Clardy” Chablis. But this was something I'd never seen or heard of: A late harvest Aligoté, made from fruit grown on a small parcel of the De Moor's 15-acre estate. Bottled unfiltered, unfined, and without cold stabilization, it was nonetheless absolutely clear and bright in the glass. Technically, the wine is considered "medium sweet," but the fierce native acidity of the Aligoté keeps everything in balance. Aromas and flavors of green apple and citrus. It paired beautifully with scallops and carrot gazpacho. I admit to going a bit gaga over it. And to wanting another discussion with Mlle. Lepeltier.

There were two remaining savory courses on the tasting menu involving rabbit and duck. I attempted a thoughtful expression and said, "Rabbit and duck--sounds like something from the Southwest might be appropriate?" She disappeared for a few moments, and returned with a red from Gailliac:

"Le Duras par Robert & Bernard Plageoles" 2007: This is labeled as vin de table, because the Gailliac AOC tasting committee rejects it as "untypical." Which is insane, because the Plageoles are known for making some of the best wines to ever come out of the appellation. Robert, the father, has been described by Andrew Jefford as a "viticultural archaeologist" who speaks of the ancient Romans who once worked these vineyards "as if they had left just a year or two earlier." He has long been an advocate for organic wines and for the many obscure grapes native to the region. Bernard, the son, is less flamboyant, but equally dedicated to producing wines that fully reflect the Gailliac terroir. This wine is made from the Duras grape, known for its dark color and spicy character. It grows in Gailliac and in a few small pockets in the nearby Côtes de Milleau. As expected, it presents a dark, almost blue-black color in the glass. It looks like it will be a bruiser, but it isn't: Aromas of blackberry and spice (black pepper?) lead to a palate where fruit and spice vie with tannins and minerals for attention.  It has some richness to it, but it is not at all heavy: it has a kind of rough-hewn elegance.

With five courses and three bottles behind us, plus a few generous pours from Pascaline, who wanted us to try some of her pairings for the tasting menu, we resisted the final list of sweet wines, slurped the strawberry shortcake/souffle dessert, and shuffled out onto East 60th street, not stuffed, but pleasantly stunned. We walked back up the West Side to our hotel, plotting how to convince Mlle. Lepeltier to trade in her boogie board (according to her bio, she surfs, she plays tennis, the piano…) for a mountain bike and hiking boots.

                                                                  Health Food

A last note: We did not find out until the next day that Rouge Tomate defines itself more or less as a health food restaurant. Had I known the place had a nutritionist on staff, I might have given it a pass, expecting some glum virtuousness. I am very glad that I didn't, and am thrilled to report that virtue and hedonism can co-exist at an extraordinarily high level. Salud!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lapeyre Jurançon: A Heightened State Of Alertness

When the Pyrenees thrust themselves up to the Earth's surface about 500 million years ago--long before the Alps--the result was a chaotic terroir where chalk, clay, schist, and sandstone formed layer upon layer, studded with rocks of all sizes and shapes. Consequently, there is little uniformity from valley to valley. This is the geological heritage of the Jurançon, an approximately 1,500-acre appellation for white wine tucked up against the Spanish border in the Basque/Bearnaise country of southwestern France.

One of the most favored locations for vineyards is La Chapelle de Rousse, where the hills resemble ampitheaters (conques--literally, "sea shells") and the vines are planted on terraces. The soil here is called "poudingue," a kind of crushed chalk, very dense, and laced with galets--big pebbles that washed down from the mountaintops ages ago. This is where Jean-Bernard Larrieu grows about 24 acres of gros manseng, petit manseng, and just a bit of courbu. For generations, his family grew fruit here--mostly strawberries--and sent their grapes to the local co-op.

                                 Conques at Clos Lapeyre (Charles Neal Selections)

When he took over the property in 1985, he concentrated on winemaking. Over the years, his operation became organic in a system he describes as one "which respects the plant, its physiology and its environment; a system of culture which allows our grape varieties to express the minerality of the poudinque, the freshness of the Pyrenees, perhaps the softness of ocean (not so far) and surely the passion of our job."

Jean-Bernard also embraces modern techniques: He ferments at high temperatures and uses temperature-controlled stainless in the winery.

2009 Larrieu "Lapeyre" AOC Jurançon Sec: This is made from 100% gros manseng, showing a beautiful pale gold in the glass. It opens with aromas of peach and citrus with a hint of sweet herb on the nose; in the mouth, peach and apricot amped up with near-electrifying acidity. This is a steely, nervy wine--the first sip sort of shocks you into a heightened state of alertness. Clean, citrusy finish. Available locally at Table Wine Asheville. You might want to call Josh to make sure he still has it in stock: 828-505-8588.