Monday, May 22, 2006

Get a bottle of... Clos des Fees Les Sorcieres

I was actually searching for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc when I came across this wine. I’d read about Clos des Fees in a number of wine publications, so it rang a bell in my head when I saw the bottle. The background is interesting: after many years of handling great bottles of wine as a respected Parisian restauranteur, sommelier and wine journalist, Herve Bizeul took the hands-on approach and bought some old Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan vineyards in the Roussillon. How old? As he puts it, “The village elders remember playing among the old vines when they were young.” 1998 was his first vintage, made with less than 7 hectares of vines – and of course much advice from friends and local villagers, plenty of hard work and a bit of luck.

Today the estate is almost three times the size, releases four wines annually and now includes plantings of Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Les Sorcieres 2004 made from 35% Carignan, 35% Grenache and 30% Syrah, was fermented and matured on the lees using cement vats at a restored winery building in the nearby village of Vingrau. No oak contact whatsoever. Deep and purple in color, the wine offers dense, dark-but-ripe blackcurrant and cassis flavors and has an exceptionally soft palate with very fine tannins. I drank a glass, and then double-decanted the bottle. The second glass showed a rich aroma of ripe fruits, and the finish even silkier than the first.

There are a number of small wineries in the Southwest of France that are worth seeking out. You probably won’t see them too often, but they’re around if you look hard. Ask your local store. Make few calls. The rewards are well worth the effort.

Clos des Fees Les Sorcieres Cotes du Roussillon Rouge2004

Domaine Gauby Cotes de Catalanes Les Calcinaires Blanc 2004

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres Rouge 2002

Domaine Matassa Vin de Pays Blanc 2004

Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 2004

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Beer Revolution

As anyone that works in the wine industry will tell you, when the time comes to relax after a long day, wine professionals reach for a beer. But isn't it our duty to devote all alcohol consumption to the noble grape? Au contraire, I think we should appreciate all forms of quality fermented and distilled liquids. A good Lagavulin single malt whisky with a good Monte Cristo is a fine thing indeed. One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in New York is simply 'choice'. There is a staggering degree of choice in everything, and this definitely includes beer. And it seems restaurants and even the corner bodega have caught on and aside from the standard plonk beer (e.g.Bud, Miller, Coors, etc) now offer a diverse selection of beers to cater for all your barley, malt and hop needs. Thus "the little guy" brewing companies, known as microbreweries, are doing very well. Brooklyn Brewery is a case in point, growing at a staggering annual rate. Their Brooklyn neighbors, Six Points, are also growing at what is according to them, "a dangerous rate", since they are now struggling to find affordable space within Brooklyn for expansion. Other American craft breweries popular these days are Rogue, Flying Dog, Smuttynose and Magic Hat to name but a few.

Many of these companies produce beer that resembles those created by Farmhouse style breweries in the UK, where the craft beer genre began in the 1970's. The Belgian Trappist ales, dark and rich beers (Orvel, Chimay) that make the common lager seem pathetically simple, are perhaps the original craft brews - they date to the early 1100's.
These days I can get a pretty good sense of how much thought a restaurant or bar put into their beverage program simply by looking at their beer selection. Those that offer the standard Bud, Heineken, Amstel Light, Cornona and maybe token "quality beer" like Stella Artois, haven't made an effort, or their clientele would reject better beers (meaning I probably wouldn't dine there anyway). Those that embrace the new beer revolution will have beers from several craft breweries in the US, UK, across Europe and maybe even Japan. I'm not talking Asahi or Sapporo here - the Bud and Miller Japanese equivalents. I had a Hitachino Nest White Ale the other day and it was incredibly smooth and satisfyingly full flavored. An impressive Japanese craft ale.

The world of beers has moved away from the big and embraced the small. One of the reasons this has taken hold is the greater appreciation of beer as a food-pairing alternative to wine. The various styles of beer now offer far greater potential on the dinner table than ever before. The next hot Sunday afternoon you're about to crack open a chewy Cabernet to enjoy with that grilled steak, perhaps consider a Brown Ale instead. Or when you have smoked salmon or Asian -style duck consider a Pale Ale. Or instead of a gin & tonic as your Saturday afternoon aperatif, try an original shandy: half beer, half Schweppes' lemonade or Ginger ale in a tall glass with a thick slice of lemon. Now that's refreshing.

Beer can be more versatile than wine in many ways, and there's nothing wrong with that. As long as you're back to the wine every now and then of course!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Poor Eric Asimov and his reluctance to taste wines

I noticed with interest, how Eric Asimov blogged on his frightfully boring NY Times blog, The Pour, that he gets really annoyed with wine industry people that continually ask him to taste their wines. The poor guy, you’d think he was a food and wine journalist or something? Wait! Hold onto your glass of Malbec – he is!! So what the hell is he doing moaning about the constant beckoning by wineries and importers? His job is to taste wines and put forth his opinions on them. He gets paid to it for the world’s most respected newspaper. Surely he should be ‘out there’ daily to taste as many wines as he can, communicate with as many wineries and importers as possible and stay totally ‘connected’ to the world of wine? He should seek the most exciting new releases, taste new vintages of old favorites and attend seminars on things like Biodynamics. If the thought of that disturbs him, then perhaps he should transfer across to the Style section so he can comment on the length of men’s swim trunks or the latest wedding cake trend and leave the wine stuff to serious wine journos?
Seriously though, maybe they should split the Dining & Wine section into Food journo’s and Wine journo’s? And Mr. Asimov should perhaps stay on the food side…

At the bar, at Craftbar

Popped into Craftbar around 9pm on Tuesday night. Previous eating experience had been good, yet unexciting. The place was surprisingly busy, with no tables available. I'm always happy to dine at the bar, which with just two of us, wasn't a problem (we grabbed the last two seats). A tasty Hitachino Nest White Ale (Japan) went down quickly on its own, aside for some crisp breadsticks.

The second went very well with the food - we ordered various small portions to share, the highlight being the Grilled Octopus with Chorizo and Smashed Potato. A large chunk of tentacle (big octopus, very big) that was succulent and sweet, and perfectly complimented by the spicy chorizo and peppery potato. The simple-looking Warm Mozzarella with Crostini, Garlic & Anchovies was deceptively full-flavored, and somehow managed to be simultaneously rich and light. Fontina and field mushroom bruschetta was superb, if a little over-charred on the edges (burnt toast = burnt toast, regardless of what language it's spelt in). The Chickpea fries with Black Olive Aioli were disappointing, the fries bland and served without enough of the tasty Aioli to hide this.

Overall, total came to around $65 sans tip for plenty of food for two people and three beers.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wine and Food

Okay, so I had some friends in town this past week, and naturally had to visit my temple of flavor, The Spotted Pig. It was a fun evening, but I rather annoyed myself when it came to wine choices. Firstly, there were six of us, so anyone who's been will know we had to wait a good deal for our table. A good deal in this case was almost 2 hours. Not a problem, since gastropub is half pub, and we enjoyed a few good Spotted Pig Bitter's with some friends. However, since lunch was a small affair that day, by the time it came to sit down, I was a little unsober. In an error of judgement, I ordered a bottle of Bodega Bleda Divus Jumilla 2002 ($50 on list / $18 retail), expecting something a little meatier with some good tannins. Instead, the wine was a fruit bomb, exploding with juicy berry flavors and sugary-softness. Definitely not a wine to enjoy while eating rich Rocquefort Burgers and Flank Steak, after four pints of bitter. My mistake, and I should have known better, but looking at the price I assumed, "Over $40, so should have some good structure." The wine was horrible when drunk in this circumstance, sadly. Sort of like cracking a bottle of Chateau Margaux while enjoying a lobster salad by the beach. Just wrong! There are a few wine from Jumilla that are similar, but I expected the weight of the Monastrell (Mourvedre) grape to come through as in most Jumilla wines I'd tasted.

Anyway, I think the wine would be a superb party sipper, but this tasting highlighted how inappropriate certain styles of wine are with food. Before that bottle was half gone, we ordered a $60 bottle of Barbera (Braida "Il Baciale") which had the necessary tannins and acid to cut through the richness of the meal. Saved by Italy, and not for the first time.

I think the message that I can pass on is, if you haven't tasted the wine, and the price is below $40, you can assume it will be quite soft and ripe, with not too much weight or structure. Over that amount, the wine should offer a more refined composition and better tannins. If it doesn't, you're probably falling victim to over-marked-up winelist prices. A common instance these days...

Notable eats... The Shake Shack

A truly superior burger is rare. The Shack (as it is known to regulars), a take-out spot in Madison Square Park, rises above all other burger excellence and somehow offers a new level of satisfaction. What is it about a ground sirloin patty between two toasted potato buns with some lettuce, tomato and onion thrown on for good measure with a dollop of secret sauce that makes it better than all the rest? I haven’t put my finger on that yet, but somehow it makes the competition look silly. Maybe it’s the cooking temperature or the secret sauce or the make of bun. Or that you have to wait in line up to an hour before you get to order (they’re installing a webcam so you can see the wait time before heading down there!). Maybe because the burgers are less than $5. Or that you get to legally (they have a demarcated area) enjoy the burger with a mini-bottle of wine while sitting under the trees in beautiful Madison Square Park. Perhaps it is knowing that the man behind The Shack (Danny Meyer) is the same man behind top New York restaurants The Modern, Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, etc. Whatever it is - the circumstances, the ingredients or both - when you experience a double Shack burger, fries and a vanilla shake here, you move one step closer to epicurean Nirvana.

As if that wasn’t enough, turns out they make ridiculously good Chicago-style hotdogs too. I could go on about that, but enough is enough. Go early (before noon) to avoid the longest lines, or go with a book.

The Shake Shack, Madison Square Park, 23rd St at Madison Avenue.

Amazing South Africa

For May, after a month sabbatical in South Africa during April, I have chosen two SA wines. These are two of the best wines out there, and justify why South Africa is on everyone's lips as the hottest wine producing country around. Okay, so I am from there but I am not biased (my favorite wine region is Spain), but seriously, the place is cooking right now when it comes to amazing wines.
My time there ended with the following interesting conclusions:
- there are white and red wines that compete with the best from any other country.
- there is however more widespread top-quality amongst the white wines than amongst reds.
- South Africa's red wines can age. I drank a 1984 and an 82 cabernet from Rustenberg. Outstanding!
- South Africa's white wines can age. I drank a 1990 Sauvignon Blanc from Mulderbosch. Outstanding!
- nowhere else can compete with South African Sauvignon Blanc in terms of diversity and overall quality.
- look out for superb viognier, chenin blanc, semillon and even grenache blanc. These varietals are well suited to certain areas of the Cape.

This month's selections:

Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2003
Varietal: 100% Cabernet Franc
Region: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Price: $27.99 - $29.99
Importer: Cape Classics

Bruwer Raats exemplifies everything good about South African winemakers. Aside from being extremely courteous and generous, he is very affable, outgoing and is always the last person to leave the party. His passion for what he does comes across strongly in the exuberant manner he describes his wine, and makes you really want to enjoy them. Fortunately, there is no need to try too hard, since his wines are all outstanding. Bruwer made the switch earlier this year to concentrate full-time this venture after making wine for another winery for the past three years. Focusing on the Loire varietals of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, Bruwer produces three wines: over a thousand cases of a crisp, unoaked Chenin Blanc called “Original”, a couple hundred cases of a rich, complex barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc and 300 cases of this Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc is one of the five major red varietals in Bordeaux, and is also more common as a blending component. It adds palate flavor and fruit aromas to blends, while being relatively low in acid and tannins. Those privileged enough to taste Chateau Cheval Blanc have enjoyed probably the most highly regarded and expensive Cabernet Franc available, a wine that shows the true ageing potential of the varietal. The 1947 vintage apparently tastes great right now!

This wine shows incredible depth. It opens with rich, lush fruits, has a touch of toasty oak and chocolate on the mid-palate and finishes with big, chewy tannins that are perfectly ripe. There is a density of flavor at the core of this wine that shows the care and trouble the winemaker has gone to. Great wine is about elimination. Whereas volume-driven labels pick all the fruit from their vineyards, small wineries like Raats Family eliminate the lesser quality fruits. Bruwer and his team go through the vineyards two to three times before harvest, simply to pick off the lesser quality grapes. Then they’ll sort through the harvested grapes on large sorting tables, removing individual berries that show rot or appear unripe. Only the best make it to the tanks for fermentation. In the end, the wine in bottle is exactly what is should be – the best possible.

Often, the big, full-bodied reds that are so popular today make awful food-pairing wines. They lack the acidity and balance to properly enjoy with many dishes. This wine gets the perfect balance between ripe fruits and acidity. It is a superb wine to pair with grilled steaks, Peking Duck, lamb shank, chicken mole, lasagna or to enjoy with a good pulled pork sandwich – mmmmm.

The Foundry Viognier 2005
Varietal: 100% Viognier
Region: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Price: $19.99- $21.99
Importer: Cape Classics

This wine is nothing short of stupendous! It has the perfect Viognier qualities of a floral nose, rich apricot - citrus fruit palate and a serious dose of minerality. Viognier is usually a good food-pairing wine, and this wine excels by being both superb with various dishes, as well as most enjoyable on its own. Perhaps a touch riper than some of its cousins from France and California, this only enhances the drinkability.

Viognier originates in the South West and Rhone regions of France. At one point, the grape was so out of favor, less than a hundred hectares of vines were planted in the world. Today, it has become a highly favored “alternative” varietal bottled on its own and in white blends (most frequently with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne – three other varietals from the same region). It is also popular as a varietal for red blends. Tiny percentages are added to Syrah, most commonly in the Rhone region, since it adds such strong aromatics.

The Foundry is a joint venture between Chris Williams, a winemaker at another prominent South African estate (Meerlust), and James Reid, an Englishman living in South Africa and working for Kumala (a mass production wine brand). In essence, they both have day jobs and this is their side project. They’ve clearly taken the Rhone region as inspiration, with their other wine being a Syrah. Like most other side-project wines, they source the finest grapes available and make the wine at an accommodating winery. Cellar space was limited their first year, and thus they ended up using an old blacksmith’s workshop – hence their label name. As a pair, the Syrah and Viognier are two of South Africa’s top wines. I enjoyed lunch with both Chris and James on two occasions, and the two are very down to earth considering the caliber of wine they produce. The US only sees about 300 cases of the wine in total (which is more than half the production), so it is a rare find, but well worth looking for.

Due to the strong aromatics, bracing minerality and full flavor, this is a white wine that can match up to many dishes. Drink it with some roast duck canapés, grilled tuna, smoked salmon, various shellfish, and roast herb-stuffed chicken or simply as an aperitif with some Mediterranean hors d’oeuvres.

Quinta do Carmo Douro 2001
Varietals: 60% Tempranillo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and the balance Alicante, Periquita and Trincadeira
Region: Douro, Portugal
Price: $27.99 - $29.99
Importer: Pasternak Wines

Known mostly for the production of fine Ports, the Douro region of Portugal also hosts several top wine producers. The region is a rough-looking area of steep hills and valleys where it is difficult and expensive to manage vineyards. A combination of slate, alluvial soils and unique climate ensure the preservation of older vines. These vines produce high quality wines of dark, deep color and intensity.

Quinta do Carmo is probably the most successful (in terms of quality) foreign venture for the Domaines Baron de Rothschild group. Other estates include First Growth Chateau Lafité Rothschild, Duhart-Milon, Los Vascos and Caro amongst others. Some of their other foreign ventures have yet to produce serious quality wine. However, the group took over the Carmo estate in 1992, and though production is quite high (around 15,000 cases), the resulting wine is highly impressive, and unlike most other big-company ventures.

Dark and rich, with blackberries, fig and coffee notes, the wine has a big mouthfeel and an oveall soft, ripeness that is most enjoyable. Tempranillo dominates the blend, while Cabernet and Syrah give it some extra weight and structure and the inclusion of other indigenous Portuguese varietals ensures a true reflection of origin, with a touch of New World influence (that softer palate style).

Goes great with assorted dried meats and bread, antipasto-style, or serve with lamb casserole, beef roast, Chinese double-cooked ribs, steak Teriyaki or any grilled meat marinated with a bit of sugar and spice!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Notable eats... Buddakan

Stephan Starr, the company behind Buddakan and Morimoto (yes, as in Iron Chef Morimoto) restaurants in Philadelphia has recently opened up Buddakan New York. Situated in the corner of the Chelsea Market building, the space and scale of things is physically impressive. At over 17,000 sq. ft. and with a capacity for over 400 guests, it was not a shy venture.

Appropriately, it has been divided into a collection of connecting spaces. There is a bar area with communal tables where diners choose from either a smaller bar menu or the full restaurant menu – which isn’t really much more extensive. Numerous other darkly lit rooms host tables, but the main dining area is a sight to behold. In the middle of the entire layout, a doorway opens up to a cavernous room, with tables one floor below and the roof a floor higher than the main level. It is an incredibly ambitious space – complete with giant 40ft table in the centre - but somehow has been worked to conjure up a French-Asian royalty look, with rich maroon and gold colors. Eating downstairs must make one feel like being invited to dine at a palace.

The atmosphere inside hums with a casual yet trendy energy, and the crowd is full of good looking, successful types and ‘foodies’ trying out the latest venture. More importantly, the Asian-inspired menu pulls off some impressively flavorful dishes. We ate at a communal table in the bar area that comfortably sat twelve people, a more relaxed way to dine amongst such regal settings. Notable were the Tuna Tartare dumplings, Lobster Dumplings with truffle soy, and the Sea Bass rolls with ginger. According to our waitress, the pastry chef is “an inspired man” (though she couldn’t name him!), but we did not leave space in the end to confirm this. I do sense I will be back though.

Overall, Buddakan offers an opulent dining experience and pleasing menu that tries hard to impress as much as the restaurant’s presence does. However, you’ll probably remember the experience more than the food itself.

Buddakan, 75 9th Ave at 16th St
Tel: 212.989.6699

March 2006 wines...

March is the first of the "3 wines-that'll-knock-you-out per month" format. I managed to throw in one of my all time favorites... which one? Ahaa... go out, try them and judge for yourself...

Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2004
Varietal: Sauvignon Blanc
Region: Loire Valley, France
Price: $23.49
Importer: Kermit Lynch

The world of wine has changed for the better over the past decade, yet remains rather full of ratings-obsessed owners, egotistical winemakers and manufactured wines. However, there are still producers out there that do most of the work individually, couldn’t care less about ratings and consider themselves a modest part within the process that creates a great wine. Michael Reverdy, part of the rather large Reverdy winemaking family, fits squarely into the latter category. And it is noticeable in this wine.

The best word to describe it would be “beautiful”. It has beautiful floral, lime and apple notes on the nose. Beautifully fresh citrus flavors abound on a slightly weighty palate. There is beautiful minerality and impressive acidity. And the finish is beautifully clean with a touch of spice that lingers around. This wine can be seen on lists at some of the top restaurants in the country (including Californian food Mecca, Chez Panisse), yet it has no ego about it. This is the supermodel that somehow retains her modesty.

Just southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley is home to wines that are always elegant. Sancerre is the original Sauvignon Blanc, and as much as New Zealand and South Africa make some delicious examples, this wine shows why there will always be demand for the classic French style. The acidity and minerality give this wine serious aging potential. Though it drinks very well now – it would slowly change in composition over the next ten to fifteen years, and reveal an impressive range of flavors. Many Sauvignon Blanc’s at the same price would lose their flavor and character within 2-3 years, when this wine would still be an infant.

I wouldn’t recommend sitting on this wine for long, unless you decide to buy a case and enjoy a bottle a year for the next 12 years – a nice way to get to know a wine! Rather wait until the next spring day comes along and enjoy it then. If you’re feeling special, take some freshly shucked ‘oysters on the half shell’ home from the fishmonger and enjoy with nothing but a few drops of lemon juice and a few glasses of Hippolyte Reverdy. It makes a good brunch wine, along with some crispy toast, smoked salmon, capers and Crème Fraiche. Alternatively, pair it with a goat’s cheese tart, seared tuna with soy and chives or as an aperitif with assorted antipasto. Mmm, now I’m hungry…

Flowers Sonoma Pinot Noir 2003
Varietal: 100% Pinot Noir
Region: Sonoma County, California
Price: $44.99

It was a Monday night at Montrachet in Tribeca, and we were taking advantage of the prix fix dinner menu with no-corkage BYO. It turned out to be an appropriately named restaurant for my first great pinot noir experience. During dinner we bumped into a wine industry friend who sent over a mystery glass of red wine. Not particularly dark in color, it had more of a ruby tint to it. The nose however…whoa! It almost smelt like Riesling at first! So floral! Okay, so our table had finished off a fair share of wine already, but this was remarkable. Beautiful, sweet perfumery overcame each of us as we passed the glass around and took the nose in. As soon as it came back to me, I took a big gulp of the velvet-soft knockout of a wine, and savored the moment - before someone snatched the glass away. This was the Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir 2001, my first taste of wine from Flowers Winery.

Sonoma County, along with Mendocino and Monterey, offers conditions suitable to making some of the finest Pinot worldwide. However, the reputation for Pinot Noir is built solidly on the wines of Burgundy, which has a history of high quality wine longer than perhaps any other region. Wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti regularly sell at auctions for tens of thousands of dollars per case and rare Burgundy is often more prized by collectors than the vintage ‘First Growth ‘Bordeaux wines. A 1978 Montrachet from Romanée-Conti fetched $23,929 per bottle at a Sotheby’s auction a few years ago. Thankfully, there is a good selection of down-to-earth Pinot Noir grown elsewhere.

So there is more expensive Pinot Noir. There is Pinot Noir that is harder to get. And there is Pinot Noir that gets better ratings. But I think Flowers Pinot Noir trumps them all. Flowers has a number of single-vineyard wines, but this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 03 uses grapes from a selection of all their prime Sonoma vineyards that are basket-pressed and sent straight to French Oak barrels after fermentation for a year of maturation. Distinctive black cherry and plum aromas jump from the glass, and on the palate the acidity and dark Pinot fruit flavors are perfectly balanced.

Enjoy a glass or two on it’s own to get the full spectrum of flavors. Food-wise, I’d love to pair this with salmon sautéed with bacon and shallots, fresh-herb covered roast quail, pork chop with balsamic glaze or just some prosciutto and warm bread.

Wine & Breathing
Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir would certainly develop if allowed to breath. What does this mean? When wine comes into contact with oxygen, it essentially starts to release aromas, usually along with some unwanted bitter tannic flavors. If a wine is left open for too long (usually 3-4 days, though some wines can show miraculous longevity) it loses its flavor and you’re left with nothing worth drinking. A wine that has been aged (kept around under good storage conditions for a length of time) has slowly been interacting with the oxygen in the bottle to soften and release unwanted flavors. Thus when you open a 1978 Bordeaux, you won’t need to decant it or let it breathe – it has already done so. A younger Bordeaux just a few years after release might benefit from breathing, thus you’d be better off decanting an hour or two before drinking. You don’t need a decanter to let wine breather either. Simply pouring into a glass and letting sit for 20-30 minutes is the equivalent of decanting the bottle.

One of my favorite things to do is see how a wine changes over time once opened. Try open a bottle of wine and have a glass a night for four nights. You’ll see how the character can often completely change. Some of the young wines lose their appeal, but rich and denser reds and mineral-heavy whites can start to show amazing aromas and a softer palate after a day or two.

A note on rare wines…
There have been some amazing bottles of wine purchased in auction houses over the years. However, the money is poorly spent if the wine is not correctly stored once purchased, as famously occurred in the mid 80’s when Malcolm Forbes paid $160,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux. Sadly it was stored in a warm room in bright lights and within a few years the cork fell into the bottle and the wine was ruined…

Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2002
Varietals: Approx. 85% Sangiovese; balance of Canaiolo & Mammolino grapes
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Price: $22.99
Importer: Dalla Terra Inc.

I first tasted this wine over dinner at a little spot in Greenwhich Village that I’m rather fond of, where it was the perfect accompaniment to a very satisfying Hamburger with Roquefort Cheese. The wine surprised me with its almost sweet nose and overwhelming burst of ripe fruit flavors. I’ve since heard it described as “Italian sunshine in a bottle”, which is very apt. You can almost taste the warmth of the Tuscan sunshine and imagine the bright purple grapes being plucked from the vine - it made a fantastic opening red for the dinner. Okay, I was at The Spotted Pig (yes, again!) that night, and maybe I’m just in a permanent state of delirious happiness when I’m there, but the wine struck me as remarkably soft and luscious for a Tuscan. The wine label might have a classic look, but the wine is full of “New World” soft and jammy fruits and is just so thoroughly enjoyable.

Avignonesi, pronounced “avee-oh-naysi”, is a prime Tuscan estate that produces wines highly praised by the critics (they have had a 100 point Wine Spectator wine previously). Interestingly, the family estate is of French (from Avignon, Provence) descendents that followed the Pope’s move to Rome in the 14th century. Since then, they’ve been producing wines in this most picturesque region, most notably the dessert wine known as Vin Santo.

The classic Tuscan wines are Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, both made from (mostly) Sangiovese. Wines made in the small town of Montepulciano itself are bottled as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano such as this, and since it doesn’t carry the name equity (and thus cost!), the wines offer similar style and quality to a Brunello but often at significantly lower prices.

Made from mostly Sangiovese (although the grape is known as ‘Prugnolo’ here) and a small amount of indigenous grapes that aren’t worth trying to remember, the fermented juice spends a full 24 months in oak barrels to soften the tannins and develop structure, with an additional 6 months in the bottle to allow further integration of flavors before release. This Avignonesi with its ripe cherry fruit flavors proves that while Chianti and Brunello wines may steal the spotlight, as in so many other wine regions the lesser known wines offer no less pleasure.

I would suggest it as an opening red wine at the dinner table – scrumptious to enjoy on a cold winter evening before moving onto something a little drier and subdued with the meal. Otherwise, it would do beautifully well with rich, meaty dishes like barbecued ribs or brisket, grilled flank steak, a rich, aged-cheddar ‘macaroni and cheese’, pasta with olive oil and spicy sausage or with some firm, sharp cheese (Parmigiano, Irish Cheddar or Piave).

Friday, March 03, 2006

Notable eats…Mary’s Fish Camp

A restaurant that began as reminiscence on childhood memories of a camp in Florida, Mary’s Fish Camp must have some of the most deliciously fresh and tasty seafood eats in Manhattan. The small and rather cramped little spot takes on a New England clam house type feel, but with the Greenwich Village ‘bohemian upscale’ touch. They offer the usual dishes like freshly delivered fish and lobster grilled or fried on request, oysters on the half shell, steamed clams and clam chowder, but with some interesting additions and a well-chosen wine list to match the fare. Lobster Pot Pie and Lobster Knuckles are two highlights, the former served in a soufflé dish with a broad pasty topping, and the latter served cold as an appetizer. The lobster rolls have a legendary following, and are probably delicious – if they’re still available when you get there. The restaurant isn’t a secret anymore. It did happen to be Valentine’s Day when we were there, but we put our name on the list and had a few drinks at nearby establishments before being seated - shortly under an hour and a half later!
Mary’s Fish Camp, 64 Charles Street at the Corner of 4th Street, New York, NY 10014

Wine Nerd February selections

February is perhaps the worst of the winter, so nothing like a few smokin' wines to help cheer one up...

Domaine Lafage Blanc 2004
Varietal: 45% Grenache Blanc, 48% Grenache Gris, 7% Macabeo
Region: Roussillon, France
Price: $9.99
Importer: European Cellars

The Roussillon is a great area for value wines. There are some superbly skilled winemakers crafting a few hundred bottles of something amazing and then several wineries that produce crisp, fruity whites and soft, supple reds that make great everyday drinkers. In the far Southwest, close to Spain, the region considers itself independent almost, and more Roussillon that French!

Stellar importer Eric Solomon, whose company European Cellars brings in some of the best wines from Europe, imports Domaine Lafage. The estate is home to winemaker Jean-Marc Lafage, who has a hand in several of Eric Solomon’s winery interests – a testament to his talent and knowledge. His Lafage Blanc is the epitome of a crisp and fresh white from Southwest France. The wine bursts with citrus and floral notes on a backbone of clean minerality. A touch of sweet peach on the finish acts as the hook to lure you in for another sip.

Makes an excellent aperitif wine, served with antipasto like olives, mixed cheeses and hummus-like spreads. Would be delicious with baby-octopus salad, steamed mussels, lightly seared tuna or a fresh garden salad.

Boggy Creek Pinot Gris 2002
Varietal: Pinot Gris
Region: King Valley, Australia
Price: $15.99
Importer: Bouquet du Vin

I discovered this at Wine Australia – a tasting of several hundred Australian wines held in New York in January this year. The event was well done, with the wines laid out alongside appropriately designated foods prepared by various New York City restaurants. A good evening! Check for information on future events.

Pinot Gris is known mostly by the name Pinot Grigio used for the popular-selling Italian wine. Those accustomed to Pinot Grigio will be a little surprised by this Pinot Gris from Australia. It is not light, crisp and simple. Instead, the Boggy Creek Pinot Gris is exceptionally rich and full-bodied for this varietal. This profile is mainly due to fermentation and maturation in old French oak barrels for up to 10 months. With a dark hue and a nice sweet kiss on the finish, it reminded me more of a good Chenin Blanc or Alsatian Pinot Gris than any Pinot Grigio.

Because of the rich, mineral and slightly smoky character, this wine would be delicious with grilled firm fish like swordfish, monkfish or grouper, or with a smoked chicken or duck salad. An herb-roast chicken or simple pasta with olive oil, garlic and sage would be delicious with this too.

Snoqualmie Naked Riesling 2004
Varietal: Riesling
Region: Washington, USA
Price: $ 10.99

Washington state has some of the best wine country in the US. Contrary to what many believe, most of the state is dry and very suitable to wine production – since the Cascade Mountain keeps all the rain in the Seattle area. Hence it is now the second biggest wine producing state, and has over 30,000 acres of vineyards. Areas like Walla Walla produce coveted Syrah and Pinot Noir that competes with the best California has to offer.

Situated in the Columbia Valley, Snoqualmie released their first wine in 1984, with female winemaker Joy Andersen at the helm since 1991 and has gained a following for her elegant approach to showcasing true varietal style. The Naked in this wine’s name comes from the fact that they’re grown by organic practices, something Joy is a strong believer in. The wine is fermented in stainless steel to keep the freshness of flavor and preserve natural qualities.

The Riesling has a lovely off-dry palate with some green apple and floral flavors. Overall it is rather soft in style, and doesn’t have the bracing acidity like some of its counterparts from Germany or France, but is a good buy. Enjoy with some soft cheeses, cured meats or Asian inspired fusion dishes like soy-ginger chicken.

Kanonkop Kadette 2003
Varietals: Merlot (39%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%) Pinotage (26%), Ruby Cabernet (6%) and Cabernet Franc (2%)
Region: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Price: $12.99
Importer: Cape Classics

Here’s an interesting wine. It’s a Bordeaux-style red blend with Pinotage. Pinotage is an indigenous grape varietal found only in South Africa. It was actually first created as a hybrid by a South African crossing Pinot Noir with Hermitage(Cinsaut), way back in 1924. This new vine was planted at relatively few wine estates and only gained recognition with the first commercial release, the Lanzerac Pinotage 1959 vintage. After this it has enjoyed mixed success and still only occupies a tiny portion of plantings (approx 7%), with relatively few high quality examples. Within South Africa, the wine has a steady following, but the frequently tannic and slightly bitter style doesn’t appeal to international palates, and only a few have met success in foreign markets. However debate continues amongst winemakers whether it should be embraced as “South Africa’s wine” or dropped so the focus can be on more international varietals.

One solution to the dilemma is the Cape Blend. Such is the name given to a red blend that contains Pinotage. By blending the Pinotage with Cabernet, Merlot and other reds, it allows the flavors to be enjoyed while keeping any unappealing elements in check.

Kanonkop makes the most highly regarded Pinotage in South Africa. The winery focuses exclusively on red wines, and their flagship Pinotage is one of those that wine-lovers around the world appreciate. They have mastered the art of coaxing the juicy, delicious flavors from the grapes, while minimizing anything that would negatively affect the end wine. They ferment the wines in open cement tanks that allow ample contact with oxygen to soften the tannins. Such an approach seems to work magnificently for them and has proven results.

The Kadette is the wine the winemaker made “to enjoy himself.” It has become very popular, since the blend offers a good amount of fruit-forward, soft fruit and red berry flavors, while retaining a classic, balanced style. Not quit austere, but not entirely New World either, the wine appeals to many.

It also makes a fantastic wine for food pairing. Crack a bottle open when you’re grilling some steaks, digging into a beef roast or ideally with game birds like pheasant or quail. Would also be good with some Manchego or other hard cheeses.

Castell del Remei Gotim Bru 2002
Varietals: 65% Tempranillo, 20% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Costers del Segre, Spain
Price: $12.99
Importer: European Cellars

I first tasted this wine at a wine show last year in Rhode Island and was amazed at how ripe and concentrated it was. Many Spanish wines can be a little too dry and unexciting, but this wine hit the mark! Another star from the European Cellars portfolio, and a great example of a value wine from Spain that puts many wines from the US and France (at up to twice the price) to shame.

The Gotim Bru could be considered a modern Spanish red. Like the “Super Tuscans” in Italy, it is a wine that blends an indigenous varietal (Tempranillo) with international varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to create something unique. The wine is certainly Spanish, but with a modern edge. Castell del Remei is located southwest of Barcelona in a temperate area primarily devoted to growing olives. Bordeaux varietals from France were planted in the early 1900’s, and this a part of the estate history, and reflected in the wines today.
The wine has a generous mouthful of fruit, with dark plum and cherry flavors and a luscious, warm sensation on the palate. Good acidity ensures a balanced finish with some Green pepper notes. Enjoy this wine with wholesome winter dishes like osso bucco, lamb curry or steak frites. Serve it slightly below room temperature to accentuate the spiciness.

St. Hallet Faith Shiraz 2002
Varietal: Shiraz
Region: Barossa, Australia
Price: $21.99
Importer: Paterno Wines

Ahaa! Finally a big and juicy Barossa Shiraz!! This is the stuff that has truly put Australia on the map, though not always justifiably - at least in my view.

Barossa Valley is a region of rolling hills, varying soils and microclimates that offer a multitude of opportunity for winemakers to create their own unique expression of a wine. Most recognized wineries have several flagship wines, each from specially selected vineyards that consistently produce top-quality grapes. There is also a fairly large amount of older vines in the region, so seeing “Old Vine” on a Barossa Valley wine label is not uncommon. (The Yalumba wine from an earlier Wine Nerd month was from 100 year old Grenache vines) The style of wine is most commonly lush, fruit-forward, ripe and rather chunky! An impressive drinking wine that does best alone in my view.

St. Hallet makes some of the best Barossa wines. Their Faith Shiraz is a great introduction to the region and style, and is very satisfying to drink. Winemaker Stuart Blackwell puts approximately 60 separate parcels of fruit through the fermentation process separately, and then identifies the most unique for special bottlings. His Faith is as he describes, “the quintessential Barossa wine.” It displays dense, rich blackberry and black cherry flavors, a sticky mouth-feel and a peppery finish.

This heavy-hitter needs bold food to match. Try it with St.Louis style BBQ ribs, spicy sausage and Tandoori lamb kebabs. For perhaps the best results, drink after these dishes as your dessert!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Notable eats... Fatty Crab

What’s it like at this new Malaysian comfort food shop? You’ll go in and see a neat restaurant with dark wood tables, a small bar and a glimpse of the kitchen behind it. Things are relaxed. The waiters will chat to you like you’re a college buddy (“Hey, so like, do you know how it works here? Things come out soon as they’re ready, and go in the middle of the table and you can all like, share and stuff. Okay, cool… now who wanted a beer?”), as they prop down some ice cold Tiger. And it all feels a little surreal until you tuck into a dish like the Fatty Duck, with its big chunks of crispy “brined, steamed and fried” duck in a sweet Hoison-like sauce. Or the succulent braised, slightly spicy, Short Ribs Rendang. Or the Oyster Omelet Ashraf, packed with oysters and served under a forest of coriander. Almost everything I tried led towards some gluttonous eating, though there were a couple misfires. The Java Mee soup comes packed with chewy egg noodles and interesting seafoods, but should only be ordered by serious fishy-flavor lovers. And the quail shooters, well, they’re interesting, but I imagine they go down better back home in Malaysia.

Overall though,

January Wines

Champalou Vouvray Sec 2004
Varietal: Chenin Blanc
Region: Loire, France
Price: $15.99
Importer: Kermit Lynch Selections

Two things here. First, I was inspired reading Adventures on the Wine Route, written by Kermit Lynch. Lynch began with a small wine store in Berkely, CA, in the 70’s when wine was still a mystery to most. He began importing wines directly, and made several trips a year to France (and other countries later) to personally taste and select his wines. He was one of the first to use refrigerated shipping containers, champion biodynamic and organic practices and have specially selected wines bottled just for his customers. Lynch was a pioneer in the wine industry, and his import company Kermit Lynch Selections is perhaps the single most reliable name on the back of a wine bottle.

Secondly, I am inspired by Vouvray. This appellation in the Loire Valley, uses Chenin Blanc to produce an incredible diversity of wines. From bone-dry whites to Sparkling demi-sec’s to sweet and sticky dessert wines, Vouvray offers enormous choice. South Africa has become a known producer of top quality Chenin Blanc, but the wines of Vouvray still have a romantic appeal to them. The weather is inconsistent here, and as a result, each vintage of your favorite Vouvray might taste quite different from the previous. But rarely will the lack character.

Champalou has become a sought after name. The husband and wife team share responsibilities, with Catherine in the cellar responsible for winemaking and Didier in charge of the vineyards. “Sec” means dry, and this wine is spicy and dry with a crisp but rich mouthful of citrus, apricot and peach flavors.
It would be superb with some camembert cheese, Thai papaya salad, Soy-ginger fried chicken, Shrimp with sweet chili dipping sauce or oven-baked hake with fresh coriander.

Domaine le Couroulu Vacqueyras 2001
Varietals: Grenache and Syrah
Region: Côtes-du-Rhône, France
Price: $17.99
Importer: Lauber Imports

Okay, shoot me if I mention The Spotted Pig again, but I had this wine there the other night, and it blew me away. For this price, it should have tasted a little softer and showed no more than a touch of robust character. It didn’t at all!!! Instead it grabbed my attention with a big and ripe floral nose, voluptuous and rich palate (berries and liquorice) and classic French-dry finish. Balanced and beautiful, and clearly the work of a master vintner. This would be Guy Ricard, the French wine-artiste who plucks grapes from vines growing out the stony, sun-exposed hills of the small Vacqueyras appellation. Small is not an understatement, considering the entire region produces approximately 500,000 cases of wine per year – less than many individual wineries.

Rhône reds like this Vacqueyras and lamb are a perfect match. You can go with roast rack of lamb, lamb stew, BBQ lamb chops, lamb burgers or try Indian dishes like Tandoori Lamb Chops, lamb tikka masala or Vindaloo.

Become a Rhône ranger.
The Rhône is a fantastic region for classic French red wine. The region can be split into the North and South, with only Syrah produced in the north and Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blends in the South. Almost all wines are bold, earthy and slightly spicy. The wines of the North sometimes have more of a chalky, peppery taste, especially those of Cornas and Côte-Rôtie, though those from Crozes-Hermitage are often a little softer. Côtes-du-Rhone’s and Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are almost always earthy and very gamey, dense items. All you need to remember is that if you’re after a robust and earthy red to warm you up, you can’t go wrong with the Rhône.

Taltarni “Three Monks” 2001
Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon (52%) & Merlot (48%)
Region: Victoria, Australia
Price: $18.99
Importer: Clos du Val Imports

Ahaa, more Cabernet! Yes, but I’m not turning completely mainstream yet. On paper, this is a Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet and Merlot, yet it originates from southwest Australia where good sun exposure provides a typical ripe and liquorice-like taste and a warm, almost port-like finish. Three Monks gets its name from the three winemakers the winery affectionately but less politely refers to as Wine Monkeys, who decided that since they were religious about making good wine, their choice of name would be suitable.

The Merlot contributes slightly softer tannins and together with the denser Cabernet , spends 15months in barrels to mature and gain structure. The difference between this wine and something like the Excelsior Cabernet is quite evident, and much of that has to do with this time in oak. Though naturally, because this is almost 50% Merlot, the flavor profile is different.

Juicy, big and round with loads of cherry-preserve flavor and a slightly chunky texture, it is a highly versatile wine. Knock it back with some roast duck, lasagna, veal cutlets, Meatball- or Eggplant Parmigiana, pizza with sausage and during summer with some barbecued lamb chops or grilled burgers.

Blind tastings

In early December, I took part in a blind tasting of about 20 syrah/shiraz wines from various regions. Majority of the wines were from California, Australia, France and South Africa. This is generally the best way to conduct learn about regional differences in wine, using a selection of wines made from the same varietal from assorted regions, and comparing their differences. When you blind taste a totally random assortment of wines, you might learn differences in grape varietals, but won’t gather much insight into regions and their varying styles.

Anyway, by about half way through the tasting, the distinctive flavor profile of each region was very apparent. The Australian wines, mostly from Barossa, had an easily identifiable (over) ripe cherry and eucalyptus flavor. The wines from France, mostly northern Rhone wines, had an earthy substance and dry, chalky finish. The Californian wines were very ripe, with a distinctive liquorice hint to them. And the South African wines were a straight down-the-middle balance between Californian and French styles: ripe fruit with a slightly earthier feel.

Overall, the unanimous opinion was that each region offered some great wines, that the Australian and Californian wines were easily drinkable, if a little unrefined, and that the French and South African wines offered more balanced and impressive choices. And the group wasn’t a bunch of wine professionals, but included some first time tasters, so these findings were interesting.

Not everyone can buy 20 bottles of wine and taste them all at one sitting, but I think if most of us did this, we’d be surprised by what we preferred in the end. Certain wines offer great satisfaction initially, but upon later reflection seem a little showy, but shallow. In the end, the wines that appeared a little subtle at first, turned out to offer greater long-term enjoyment.