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!