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Happy/Sad Cheverny

Date: Sun, Mar 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

Supposedly there are more words in the English language than in most other languages. And yet it feels as though we are limited in our ability to discuss some of the more important ideas - there just aren't enough words. I've read that there are over 40 words for snow in one of the Inuit languages. Makes sense - there are many different types of snow and if this is an important part of daily life, differentiating between these kinds of snow, it's natural that different words wold emerge so that people can communicate clearly.

Although there apparently are a lot of words in English, we have only two that I can think of to describe warm feelings towards another person - "like" and "love." Shouldn't there be more than that? Aren't there gradations that we aren't giving efficient voice to? Same with "happy." There are many different kinds of happiness, but we have few words to differentiate here. There is the kind of happy you feel when a puppy bounds up and starts licking your face or the kind of happy you feel when holding a 6 month old baby. The kind of happy you feel when you've stepped inside from a soaking rain, or finally made it through security after a long line at the airport. The kind of happy you feel when you're finished taking a final exam, or the kind you feel when your test results are negative. The kind you feel when you get to the BBQ and open the back door to the yard, see everyone there talking and eating and having fun, and you haven't yet but are about to join the fray. There's even the weird kind of happiness you (or maybe just me?) feel when you are depressed about something, but finally give in and allow yourself to wallow in it in the comfort and safety of your own home - an exquisitely sad kind of happy.

Where am I going with this. A fair question indeed, patient reader.

Well, if a puppy licking your face is Beaujolais Nouveau, I think I've found a wine that for me best expresses the exquisitely sad kind of happy. I'm talking about 2010 Domaine de Veilloux Cheverny Rouge. I opened a bottle a week ago or so and it was really difficult at first, loaded with reductive funk. But there was something accessible in there, a very lovely note of dried roses. The next day the wine retained a tannic edge, but it showed such pretty fruit and floral tones, satisfying kernels of happiness inside of a challenging package.

The wine is a blend of many grapes - Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Malbec, Gamay, probably Pinot too and I don't know what else. I do know that the wine is farmed biodynamically and organically and that 2010 is my favorite recent vintage for Loire wine. I also know that it is a selection of Michael Wheeler (a friend of the Dressners and much of the NYC wine world who moved out west) and Michael Foulk - their company is MFW Wine Co. This is a relatively new company, I think based in Portland Oregon, and their book includes some lovely wines that are direct-imported in NYC by David Lillie at Chambers Street Wines. There are some other wines too, things I've not heard of, including a lovely little Barbera called FUSO, made by Walter Massa - it's surprisingly good wine for $13.

Veilloux Cheverny Rouge is an excellent argument for blended red wine, a complex, expressive, and delicious wine, but a wine whose happiness does not come easily. You need to wallow in in a bit first. It sips well on its own, but really shines with all sorts of food. It sells for something like $15-17, and it's worth looking for. I got mine at the excellent Slope Cellars in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Try it, if you're looking for that exquisitely sad/happy feeling.

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Comfort Food

Date: Thu, Feb 28, 2013 Wine Tasting

You've noticed that I've been busy lately, sorry to drop out like that. Lots of work and some work travel, and things just pile up.

I'm trying to get better about work travel, as it has become an inescapable fact of life for me, and it seems like it will get worse before it gets better. There are a few simple things I'm trying to do now that make it easier.

1) Travel light - sounds obvious, but I've begun taking it to the extreme. I pack almost nothing, try to fit whatever I need into a large laptop shoulder bag. Yup, I'm that guy with underwear in his computer bag. I cannot bring myself to wear lace-less shoes, and it's not for lack of trying. They just look so dorky on me.

2) Leave the house clean - coming home to a clean house just feels better.

3) Leave something easy and comforting in the fridge to cook when I get home. It cam be tempting to go out to eat after work travel because it's easy, but it's so much nicer to put on some music and make something at home, and to open a pleasing bottle.

Upon returning from a recent work trip I made the simplest of comforting meals - steak and mashed, and a salad. I feel like people think there's some sort of trick to making good mashed potatoes, and I just don't see it. Why is this tricky? I peel and coarsely chop a couple of russets (they cook quickly and have the right texture when mashed), put them in a pot of salted water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and test them until they give easily to a fork. Then it's through the potato ricer, and here is where the magic happens. The still hot but now ground potatoes are begging for seasoning, and they will readily accept whatever you give them. I keep it simple, with a glug or two of buttermilk, a pat or two of butter, a shake or two of salt, and a grind or three of black pepper. Honestly, it's hard to argue with the results.

Although I am still a believe in this method of cooking steak, the just-returned-from-work-travel mood doesn't allow for 25 minutes in the oven. I just pan fried this baby, let it rest, sliced it thick, whisked a little sherry vinegar and soy sauce into the pan juices, and went to town.

This has got to be one of the easiest dishes as far as wine pairing goes, it's hard to go wrong. This was comfort food night for me, after work travel. I wanted something familiar that would offer a pure form of pleasure.

The problem is, the wine just wasn't very satisfying. I drank the 2007 Coudert Fleurie Cuvée Tardive on only one other occasion, about 5 years ago at a friend's house. I remember thinking that it was entirely closed aromatically and on the palate, which is to be expected at that stage (and perhaps still now), but I also remember thinking that the wine just didn't feel right. It had a murky quality, a lack of clarity that bothered me. But this is 5 years later and 2007 shouldn't be the type of vintage that requires a million years to reveal its charms. Shouldn't this be approaching drinkability now?

Who knows? The wine was still tight as a drum aromatically and on the palate - I mean nothing doing. Dark, dark, dark, and impenetrable. And then three hours later, the sun shone in and the veil lifted, and the wine showed lovely fruit and a nice clarity of flavor. Okay, I thought, this wine is just too young. And it probably is too young to drink now. But it never really stayed clear and bright - the darkness returned, especially on days 2 and 3, and by day 3 it seemed to be going downhill.

I am not familiar with the aging curve of Cuvée Tardive, and maybe I made a classic mistake in opening the bottle at this age. But I also think that the wine has a murky quality, a blurriness to the flavors that isn't terribly appealing. It's hard to accept that from a producer that I know and love - could it really be a not-so -great wine in 2007?

No matter. My dinner was comforting, and even though I didn't love the wine, it was comforting too. A familiar drink can be comforting even when it's not as delicious as it usually is.

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Japanese-style Food, and Fino Sherry

Date: Wed, Feb 13, 2013 Wine Tasting

I've been trying to cook Japanese food lately, and I've succeeded in cooking Japanese-style food. It's amazing how far you can get with a couple of miso pastes, some kombu (dried kelp) and dried shaved bonito flakes, some mirin and shoyu.

Here is one recipe that my daughters and I have been enjoying - Japanese-style stew with beef and potatoes. Disarmingly simple, and very satisfying, especially in this cold weather. You are essentially braising beef and potatoes in a mixture of Japanese sweet rice wine and shoyu. Here's what you do:

1) Watch the Shogun miniseries in it's entirety. This is 10 hours of your life well spent. And it gets you into the right frame of mind, as a foreigner attempting to do something Japanese.
2) Slice against the grain 1 pound of flank steak (but you can use other similar cuts) into pieces 1 inch thick, but leaving them the width of the steak. Brown the meat and remove from the pot.
3) Cut a large onion in half and slice it with the grain into long thin strips.
4) Peel two russet potatoes and cut them into chunky half moons, chunky enough to hold together in a braise.
5) Peel a decent sized knob of very fresh ginger and grate it finely.
6) Mix together a quarter cup of good quality mirin with a quarter cup good quality shoyu, and 1 cup of good quality hand-poured water. This is the ratio that I like, but you can add more shoyu or mirin - they are strong flavors though and this combination is nicely balanced.
7) Saute the onions in the beefy pot, but don't brown them. After they have cooked for a few minutes, add the ginger and mix well.
8) Add the braising liquid and bring to a simmer.
9) Add the beef and the potatoes, bring to a boil and immediately turn down the heat to a simmer.
10) Cover with a Japanese drop-lid, or if like me, you don't have one, cover the pot with a damp piece of parchment paper and a tight-fitting lid. Every 15 minutes or so move the stew around the pot to make sure that all the meat and potatoes have a turn being submerged.
11) When the meat is very tender, maybe 90 minutes, turn off the heat and let the whole thing rest for 10 minutes or so.
12) Top with scallions and serve over rice.

Would it surprise you if I tell you that this dish is fantastic with Fino Sherry? A lot of Japanese food is great with Fino Sherry. There is the umami factor - Japanese home cooking and Sherry both have it, and they compliment and elevate each other tremendously. But it's more than that. As I understand it, one of the ideas in Japanese cooking is to bring out the essence of the ingredient, to accentuate the beef's beefiness, or the radish's radishiness, if you will. Fino Sherry, with its very pure chalky saline and savory flavors somehow enhances the purity of the flavors in Japanese dishes.

One night I drank Emilio Hidalgo's beautiful Fino called La Panesa with this dish, and I swear to you it was as good a pairing as any I've had in a very long time.
On another evening I made a simple Savoy cabbage, daikon radish, and pork dish, simmered again in a light mixture of mirin, shoyu, and water. First of all, this is seriously delicious. My young daughters were happily eating Savoy cabbage, that's how good it was. There was half a bottle of La Panesa leftover, and surprise surprise, it was a wonderful pairing.

Tonight I made tofu with snap peas, carrots, and onions simmered in a mixture of red and light miso pastes, mirin, and water. Again, the daughters lapped it up - these girls like the savory.

And I drank the old reliable Valdespino Inocente, a spirited little half-bottle. I'm telling you, if you're into Sherry and you haven't tried it with Japanese (or Japanese-style) food, you really should.

One day I will learn to make oden like this. Probably not, actually. But at least I had the sense at this restaurant to pair it with the very grand La Bota de Manzanilla No 22. As Morgan Freeman said at the beginning of the movie Se7en, "This isn't over - there are going to be more of these."

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I Might be Corked

Date: Fri, Feb 8, 2013 Wine Tasting

I'm stuck in the middle of a tough streak right now, friends. Be very careful sharing your good wine with me, as since early January there have been some incredible disappointments. Lately, every bottle that should be great is corked or flawed in some other way. It's starting to spread now to the daily bottles too, which is alarming.

It began with a bottle of 1988 Drouhin Musigny at the annual Burgundy Wine Club dinner in early January. Should have been a brilliant bottle, but it smelled and tasted like roasted peat.

This established the tone for the next month. I opened a bottle of 2006 Marquis D'Angerville Volnay 1er Cru Les Fremiets one night and it was corked. That teasing kind of corked, too, where you keep drinking it because you haven't had the wine before and it's not the stinky vicious kind of corked. It was the kind that wisps in and out in a subtle way, gradually building, until eventually it can no longer be denied.

And then this majestic bottle was corked. Again, it wasn't immediately clear (except to one very experienced drinker). Everyone agreed that something was wrong with the wine, but we all fought as hard as we could to deny reality, for obvious reasons. Seriously, this is tragic, isn't it? When am I ever going to drink 1989 Gentaz again?

Then one evening last week I decided to try the 2011 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords, always exciting to try the new vintage. Corked. Not hard to replace, but still frustrating.

Then on Friday last week my good friend brought a special bottle to my house for dinner, a bottle he bought a year or so ago at my encouragement. 1987 Domaine Terrebrune Bandol, which I've actually tasted before and I'm a sucker for Bandol from those years, when the wines were less bombastic and lower in alcohol (although this one was 13.5%). The problem was, the wine was corked. And in that especially annoying subtle way that took us 30 agonizing minutes to recognize. Was it taking its time opening up, was it a little heat damaged (yes), was it corked, why was it so muted and weird...because it was corked.

And on Super Bowl Sunday my good pal very generously opened a great bottle to share, the 1998 Giacosa Barbaresco Rabaja. The Bud Light ads were tempting, but this wine had us way more excited. He decanted it for a while and we were ready to go, but the wine was heat damaged. We drank some anyway because it was possible to see the potential of the wine underneath, but I could tell he was frustrated, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that these days, I bring this plague with me wherever I go.

My friend Peter said to me recently, joking around, but not entirely, that no where else would consumers allow this sort of failure rate in the products we buy. "Imagine buying a new car," he said, "turning the key and finding that it doesn't go. And then the salesman smiles sadly and says 'Yeah, sorry, that one doesn't go, that happens sometimes and you'll have to live with it.'"

Okay, a new car is a bit more expensive (unless we're talking about corked Jayer or DRC). But his point is interesting. Why have we accepted the fact that 1 of 8 or 9 bottles of wine is corked? We are told that we have to accept this, that it's part of the game. Maybe so. It still stinks, and can be soul crushing if you've invested cellar time and/or a lot of money in the bottle.

My friend Lee Campbell who used to sell the Dressner portfolio of wines and now is the wine director at Reynards, among other things, once had me guffawing as we complained about corked wine. She said that she's convinced that lots of things can be corked. There is a small park near her house that she thinks is corked. Certain television shows are corked (I think she said that Glee is the most recent offender), a diner near her office is corked, North Korea is corked.

I am worried that I might be corked.

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Drinking Four Wines by Château Pichon-Lalande

Date: Mon, Feb 4, 2013 Wine Tasting

Not long ago I had the opportunity to drink four bottles of very fine Bordeaux, wines by Château Pichon-Lalande. A good friend was in NYC for the weekend and he brought these from his cellar - lucky me! I've had mature Bordeaux before but one bottle at a time, and quite infrequently. This may not surprise you, but I don't have any old Bordeaux in my cellar. Here's another thing that might surprise you - I truly wish that I did.

There are few wines that could be considered less hip and cutting edge than Bordeaux right now. And rightfully so, in a way. The modern wines tend to be over extracted fruit bombs with little to offer in the way of terroir articulation, never mind detail or elegance. They are big, artificially made wines, in most cases. And they are hugely successful, making tons of money for everyone involved.

But like most things that are classic, old Bordeaux is classic for a good reason. They are made from noble grapes and come from interesting terroir, and when well made they combine brawn with detail, complexity, and grace. Many wine lovers of my generation and younger may not have had a great old Bordeaux - it's not something that gets much attention anymore. I think that those of us who haven't had a great old Bordeaux are missing out, not only on beautiful experience, but also on a vital piece of wine appreciation and history. How can we even approach having an understanding of why wine is great without knowing what a grand old claret tastes like?

Pichon-Lalande is one of the top second growths, and comes from Pauillac, a terroir that apparently gives some of the brawnier wines of the region. You can almost see this in the color - look at that inky purple!

My friend generously brought wines from 1978, 1985, 1988, and 1989. Although the youngest was 23 years old, none can really be considered old by Bordeaux standards. My pal Peter says that you shouldn't bother opening good Bordeaux before it hits 20 years old, and that's probably just the beginning of its maturity.

I roasted a leg of lamb over potatoes, and we went to town. The wines were amazing, all four of them. They continued to evolve over many hours, and were delicious and deeply satisfying throughout. In general, I appreciated the raw power of the wines, and this was easy to do because they also showed such detail and complexity. There was power, but that was only part of the package. There was also balance - these were wines that showed lovely and refreshing acidity, and great complexity of aroma and flavor. Inspiring, really. Not in the way that I felt like going out and buying the current vintage, because as I understand it, the new wines will not become like these wines, even with 25 years in the cellar. They are made differently now. But inspiring nonetheless. If you have any old Bordeaux and you want some one to appreciate it with, I will make dinner.

The 1989 was a wonderful wine, Peter said that it was the grandest wine of the four, and that it had years, maybe decades of life in it. It was the most complete wine on the table, but I found it hard to compare the wine from 1989 to the wine from 1978 - I just don't know enough to be able to understand where the 1989 is in the context of the evolution of Bordeaux. Will it shed some weight and feel like the 1978 in 10 years? Will it always feel this full bodied, but become more gentle and mellow, and offer even more complexity with further maturity? I would guess, yes.

I found the 1978 to be the most rewarding on this evening, with its mellow and gentle nose of tobacco and leather, its complex and long cedary finish. It felt like being inside a log cabin in the woods. Still plenty of energy, an elegant structure, very long and plain and simple - absolutely delicious.

The 1985 was the most approachable right after we opened and decanted the bottles, and was perhaps the most fruit forward of the wines. I enjoyed it tremendously, but in the end we found the other vintages to be more compelling. The 1988 felt more mature than I might have expected, but in a good way, and showed ripe fruit that was thoroughly infused with earth. I loved this one in particular with the lamb, and it seemed to have a lot to offer even as we finished it. This one might, sneakily, be a wonderful wine.

There are plenty of reasons to ignore modern Bordeaux, I get it. The wines can be bombastic and overbearing, and the story of the Bordeaux region seems to be one of opulence and privilege, there is no struggle, no individuality. People in meticulously hip Brooklyn restaurants want to drink wines made without sulfur by scruffy guys or gals living in ramshackle trailers on lonely hillsides. Those wines have their place, I guess. But that's not Bordeaux.

But there is something to this, to old Bordeaux wine. Don't believe me? Get your hands on an old bottle by a good producer - you and three of your friends can do this and spend less than $50 per person. And really, this is history, and it's worth knowing for yourself.

Would you ignore The Police because Sting was kind of lame later in his career? Would you dismiss Woody Allen because Scoop kind of sucked? Are you not going to drink the one bottle of 1976 Lynch-Bages that Chambers Street is selling for $115 because 2010 Lynch-Bages costs $150 and will never be as good? Seriously, what kind of person are you, anyway?

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An Unknown Wine from Piedmonte

Date: Mon, Jan 28, 2013 Wine Tasting

The other evening I was at a friends house as our daughters played together. I accepted a last minute dinner invitation. My friend is from Piedmonte, from a small village called Briona in Valtelinna the Valesia region of the Colline Novaresi. This is the friend who helped me get started making my own pizza (something I continue to attempt, never terribly well).

She made pasta for dinner, a type I'd never seen before, calamari-shaped. When I asked what it was called I believe she actually said "calamari." She tossed them in Sicilian pistachio pesto and topped them with a generous helping of aged Parigiano. This was a very delicious dish, by the way.

While she was cooking she opened a bottle of red wine. The label said Fara - I had never heard of this. My friend told me the story of the wine. Her mother's cousin inherited some money from a distant relative, enough to leave her job as an accountant and to pursue a new life as a wine maker. She bought some vineyard land in her village. This is her fourth or fifth vintage, and my friend said that the previous wines were not so great, but this one, the 2009 Cantina Castaldi Fara, is good.

What a nice story! Many of us have imagined a world in which we leave our daily grind and become wine makers. Of course that's a different kind of daily grind, but why ruin the romance of the idea...

Anyway, we poured the wine and it was quite good - brightly fruited, snappy and refreshing with acidity, not terribly complex but aromatic and very lovely, and showing the structure that I suppose comes with the territory in Piedmonte.

"What grape is she using here," I asked.

"Hmmm, I don't know," my friend said. "She grows Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Uva Rara, maybe also Vespolina, but I don't know what is in here. Maybe it's Nebbiolo."

We chatted about our kids, about their schools, about upcoming travel, about new apartments, and NYC in the winter time. I had my nose in the glass and was trying to figure out what the wine was, but I'm painfully ignorant when it comes to Italian wine. "I think it cannot be Nebbiolo - it's too approachable," I said. "Barbera, maybe with some Nebbiolo in there too?"

My friend just smiled, and told me something about Sicilian pistachios, or maybe it was about how hard it is to get a good contractor for renovating an apartment.
The point is, I realized, it didn't matter. Sure, I was curious, and I'd still like to know. But my friend loves wine because she grew up with it (and Barolo was only for the most special of occasions, she says), and because she likes the taste with her meals. Is it Nebbiolo in this bottle, Barbera, Vespolina...it couldn't have mattered any less to her. What's important to her is the story of her grandfather's brother's daughter - her mother's cousin, and how she had this interesting life change. And my friend takes obvious pleasure in drinking this distant relative's wine. And she chose to share it with me, because she knows I love wine.

There are many ways to enjoy this very fine and fascinating thing that we all love. It's good to experience these different types of enjoyment, especially the ones we don't typically engage in. I cannot tell you the last time that I enjoyed a bottle of wine so much, having so little idea of what was inside.

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Drinking an Aged Fino Sherry.

Date: Tue, Jan 22, 2013 Wine Tasting

The other night I was lucky enough to drink a fino Sherry sourced from Bodegas Valdespino, one of the finest Sherry producers. There are two things that make this wine very special. Firstly, it was selected from special barrels within the Inocente solera by Jesús Barquín and Eduardo Ojeda, two-thirds of the team behind Equipo Navazos. And Ojeda is the capataz, or cellar master, at Valdespino (and La Guita), and so you have to figure that the two of them chose interesting and very fine barrels. Secondly, it was bottled in April of 2007.

This wine had an average age of something like 10-12 years when it was bottled, but now it has aged in Peter Liem's cellar since release - it's almost 5 years in bottle. The common wisdom about fino Sherry is that you drink it when it's young, before it looses its freshness. There are some fino Sherries that probably should be consumed pretty quickly after release - those that are bottled unfiltered, and that still have small bits of flor floating about. The presence of flor makes it possible for the wine to continue to develop, to change in some way, and producers typically urge us to drink these wines within 6 months. I've heard Antonio Flores of Barbadillo Gonzales Byass say this about his palmas, for example. I do not have any personal experience cellaring a wine like this, so I cannot agree or disagree.

Regarding high quality fino Sherry, however, wines that have been lightly filtered - the common wisdom is wrong. You've read this here before, I know. The more personal experience I gain drinking fino with bottle age, the more I am convinced that this is a wine I am just starting to get to know. Like any other fine wine, it has an essential character, but it evolves in the cellar and shows differently as it ages.

Equipo Navazos la Bota de Fino Nº 7 was a wonderful old bottle. It was Peter's very last one, and it was generous of him to share it over dinner at Aburiya Kinnosuke in midtown. And if you haven't yet had Sherry with Japanese izakaya-style food, you really should try it. The fino needed a little air but it opened up beautifully, and at this stage in its life showed rich and mouth-watering notes of butter and toffee, although I was able to sense the delicate sea-sat mineral undertone. Peter smiled when I told him this, and explained that La Bota Nº 2 (also a fino sourced from the Inocente Solera) and 7 are very different from the current release, Nº35. They were brawnier and bigger upon release - Jesus was interested in making a bigger wine back then, I guess. With time in the bottle, though, I experienced Nº 7 as a delicate wine. Rich, but delicate.

We drank this next to my last bottle of La Bota de Fino-Amontillado Nº 24, bottled in October of 2010. This is a fantastic wine, Peter calls it "probably the best PX ever made." I've been fortunate enough to drink a lot of this wine, and it has changed since it was first released. On this night it was bright, energetic, and focused, and entirely delicious. What shocked me was how young it seemed, next to Nº 7.

There is a lot of life in these wines, plenty of potential for development in the cellar. It is my goal to be better about actually saving a few bottles. It's hard though because the wines are so delicious from the very start. Note to self: get some fino self control.

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Burgundy Wine Club 2013 - Chevillon, Lignier, Montrachet, and Musigny!

Date: Thu, Jan 17, 2013 Wine Tasting

I got into wine too late to be able to drink things like La Tâche, Chambertin, or Musigny. There was a time not too far back when a person could buy a bottle of wine like that and yes, it would cost a lot, but buying a bottle wouldn't necessitate changing the way you live. Now, a bottle of mature Chambertin by a top producer costs at least $1,000. La Tâche...fugedaboudit. But these are among Burgundy's greatest vineyards and they give wines that all of us would love to taste. How, in this day and age, can those of us who do not manage hedge funds experience these wines?

Burgundy Wine Club is the answer, my friends. Seven friends and I kick in a few hundred dollars every year, and by pooling our money we are able to buy expensive wines that none of us alone would purchase. Not only are we pooling our resources, we are also sharing the risk of flawed bottles.

I am graced with the task (joy is more like it) of choosing the wines, and the theme of our annual dinner. Last year we drank a lot of Pommard, which is now a curse word in my house. The year before that we focused mostly on Volnay. This year I was not as concerned with picking one theme, and instead focused on finding bottles that I really wanted to drink - things I'd never had before that would be accessible to me only via Burgundy Wine Club. So, we drank a bottle of Montrachet (!), several bottles by Robert Chevillon from the early '90's, some Lignier Clos de la Roche, and yes, we drank Musigny. Musigny!!!

Obviously there is visceral pleasure in drinking these wines, and in the act of getting together with good friends for this annual Big Night of Burgundy. I learn a tremendous amount too at these dinners, and this night especially so. I learned for myself why it is that Les Saint Georges is considered to be the finest terroir in the southern part of Nuits Saint Georges. I was reminded that Montrachet is great, but appreciated the way that some vintages give more of a thrill than others. I learned what Clos de la Roche tastes like, what it really tastes like. And I learned that Musigny, even from a poor vintage, is one of the true apexes of red wine.

We gathered at the bustling and energetic Manhattan hot spot The Breslin, where my friend Carla is the wine director, and she and her team were amazing. We opened the bottles as we sat down, poured the Montrachet, and mostly let it sit in the glass to open up over the course of the next few hours. We began with wines by the great master of Nuits Saint Georges, Robert Chevillon. Chevillon makes wines from 8 vineyards of 1er Cru standing: 4 in the northern and 4 in the southern part of Nuits Saint Georges. His wines are known for their transparency and terroir expression.

We drank only wines from the southern part of the village (the northern side continues up the hill to Vosne-Romanée), including the great vineyards of Les Saint Georges, Vaucrains, and Les Cailles. With onion soup laced with bone marrow we drank 1994 Les Vaucrains and 1994 Les Saint Georges. 1994 is thought of as a poor vintage, but these wines were terrific. Vaucrains was bright and energetic, and also showed a bit of a rustic side. It was balanced and long, and the fruit was still lively. Les Saint Georges was, even on the nose, immediately recognizable as the finer terroir, with greater depth and complexity, it was a more complete wine. I was thrilled by the way the wine combined density and power of flavor with a silky and graceful frame. One experienced drinker found the alcohol to be a bit intrusive at 13.5%, but still thought it was a great wine. Oddly enough, Vaucrains was the better pairing with the onion soup, meshing perfectly with its salty and savory flavors.

With various savory vegetable plates we then drank 1992 Les Cailles and 1992 Les Saint Georges, and sadly, this wine was corked. I actually did not identify it as such, and neither did most of us. Some found it a bit musty, I found it simply to be not terribly complicated. An experienced drinker suggested it was corked and it made sense. Live and learn. Les Cailles however, was the prettiest of the Chevillon wines, with rose inflected red fruit that glowed with energy. Chevillon! These are wines that can still be purchased without liquidating my retirement account, and they are wonderful wines.

There are several great producers of Clos de La Roche, including Dujac, Rousseau, Ponsot, and Lignier. On this night we drank two bottles of Lignier Clos de la Roche, and both were great wines. I've read that Clos de la Roche gives one of the longest lived red wines in Burgundy, and that as per its name (roche = rock), the wines show pronounced minerality. The 1998 Clos de la Roche was superb, with intensely savory and smoky aromas and flavors that were completely shot through with stone. I loved this wine, and it's funny because it wasn't pretty or even very approachable, but it was detailed and intense, and I was assured by experienced drinkers at the table that this was quintessential Clos de la Roche. The 1995 was delicious, with more pronounced fruit and generally more approachable, but I found less complexity, less intensity of stone - less Clos de la Roche. I would love to drink the 1998 again in 10 years.

With a gorgeous set of homemade terrines and pâtés, we drank Musigny. First I should tell you that the 1988 Drouhin was drastically heat damaged and completely unsmellable, never mind undrinkable. This is a shame of epic proportions, but such is life. Thank goodness we were able to experience the 1986 JF Mugnier Musigny Vieilles Vignes, as wonderful of a red Burgundy wine as I've ever had. Another poor vintgage, and another great wine. If La Tâche is aromatic fireworks, if Clos de la Roche is rock, and if Chambertin is raw power, Musigny is complexity and grace, spherical like Montrachet. I'm not going to be able to describe the smells and flavors here, but I can tell you what it felt like to drink the wine. The nose undulated. I thought of a dimly lit room with a lush red velvet robe tossed haphazardly on a couch. So many aromas moving, and in all directions, always graceful. I must have smelled the wine for almost a half hour before taking a sip, and when I did I was shocked by the energy and power on the palate. The nose was glorious, but docile. The palate, anything but docile. This was a haunting wine, as thrilling to me as any red wine I can remember drinking. And I wasn't the only one - most of us at the table were fascinated with this wine and I saw people swaying as they smelled, as if praying at the Wailing Wall.

And to cap it all off, we drank Montrachet, the 1991 Marquis de Laguiche / Drouhin. Although this wine showed plenty of class and breed, I thought that it was not as great a wine as the only other two bottles of Montrachet I've had, same producer but 1989 and 1988 vintages. The 1991 was excellent but it showed a bit thick, with surprisingly sweet flavors, and without the focus I would have liked. An experienced drinker said that he detected some botrytis and this makes sense. Criticizing Montrachet is sort of like criticizing Mozart - who am I, really to say anything here. Just sharing my thoughts, that's all.

Another great Burgundy Wine Club night, and this time our wines showed very well, in general. I'm already thinking about themes for next year...

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A First Time Cook - Fried Polenta Cake with Egg

Date: Tue, Jan 15, 2013 Wine Tasting

On a recent Friday afternoon I had a little special time with my younger daughter, who had just turned 4 years old. Her older sister was still in school and the younger one and I were about to have lunch. She is more adventurous than her older sister as an eater, and has lately been showing an interest in the process of cooking. She likes to stand on a step stool and watch as I cook, and enjoys doing little jobs like mixing the wet and then the dry ingredients when we make pancakes, or putting butter in a hot pan and swirling it around with a spatula.

On this day I thought why not let her choose what we eat for lunch, and maybe she can play a larger role in cooking. I set out some choices for her - we had eggs, leftover polenta, fresh marjoram and rosemary, dry sausage, broccoli, carrots, and a few other things that I cannot recall. She chose polenta and we agreed that we would fry it to make the sides crispy. She decided that we would put an egg on top (perhaps she is familiar with the "egg-on-top" that currently pervades every menu in Brooklyn).

She put butter in a hot pan, cracked an egg into a bowl, and helped me pour it into the pan. She smiled at the sizzling noise, because this time she made that noise happen, not me. She decided on sunny-side up for the eggs. I would have gone with whatever she decided, but this was a good choice. Scrambled eggs on polenta doesn't sound so appealing. She helped me take the eggs out of the pan and place them on a plate. She used a butter knife to cut polenta patties from the log I shaped out of the leftovers, and then helped me to carefully put two patties in the pan. She helped me turn the patties to brown the other side. We put the browned patties on plates and she helped to put the eggs on top. She decided to put two marjoram leaves on top of the eggs, some salt and pepper, and then she decided that we would have thin slices of Parmigiano cheese on top, not shaved cheese.

She was very proud of her work, and she cleaned her plate, which is not unusual, but I detected an added relish as she ate. I was proud of her, as you can tell, and by the way, our lunch was delicious. This is going to be fun, cooking with my daughters.

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Some Recent Wines, VLM Style

Date: Thu, Jan 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

The Vulgar Little Monkey, or VLM as many like to call him, is back writing on the internet. I like his writing because it's completely honest, because he is clear about his particular point of view, and because he makes me laugh. I recently read through his blog posts since he picked it up again in October and it's satisfying stuff. Most of the posts list wines he's had, along with tasting notes. This sort of thing can be uninspiring at best, but the VLM makes it rewarding, in my opinion.

I've stayed away from this sort of writing, the list of wines and tasting notes, for quite some time because I don't feel that it would be of much value. And maybe it won't be when I try it now. But I'm doing it anyway. Here are some wines I drank in the last few months that might be of interest:

2009 Bernard Baudry Chinon Franc de Pied, $26. This is Baudry's ungrafted vines cuvée from the sandy base of the Clos Guillot vineyard. I've heard that ungrafted vines make wines that should be consumed young, and I've heard the opposite too. This wine showed very well, but showed young. Not all wound up and tight, but young - all fruit still. The dark fruit was lovely and the mineral complexity was there, although just barely articulating itself. This wine is clearly of very high quality and is very well balanced, especially in the context of the warm 2009 vintage. Enjoyable now but I think worth leaving in the cellar too.

2009 Domaine Ganevat Côtes de Jura Cuvée de L'Enfent Terrible, $34.This is Ganevat's Poulsard. Ganevat red wines are almost always reduced and terrifically funky when first opened, and need a good decant to show well. To my taste, this is the finest Poulsard after Houillon/Overnoy. This was a great showing. I decanted it 5 hours before drinking and it needed every moment. When we drank it, it was clear as a bell, completely pure and harmonious and not at all overripe, although the ripeness of the vintage shows. Great complexity and balance. But the thing that makes it special is the purity of the focused red fruit - the crystalline nature of the wine is like that of a white wine. Very lovely, but now the price is closer to $50. If you love Poulsard, probably this is one to buy.

Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Champagne Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs (2008), $55. No surprise here - this wine is all 2008 fruit, a great vintage in Champagne, and Bouchard makes great wines. This was simply excellent - the purity of fruit rather startling. Saline and chalky, and the texture is all silk. It was still growing and improving when we finished it. Beautiful now, but certainly one to leave in the cellar too.

2007 Muhr-van der Niepoort Blaufränkisch Carnuntum, $18.I loved this wine a year ago and saved one bottle, hoping to leave it alone for a few years. I made it through one year, so I was partially successful. The wine was gorgeous on day one with broad and vibrant aromatics - flowers, various fruit, clean and very lovely. The palate wasn't as expressive, although there was an intriguing mineral floor and this was the main impression on the finish. On day two the wine lost some of its explosiveness on the nose, but was more complete on the palate, with clean, cooling, mineral-infused fruit. Worth the wait, and I should have bought more.

2007 Hirsch Riesling Gaisberg, $34. Hirsch is one of the better regarded producers in Austria's Kamptal region. Heiligenstein is considered to be the vineyard with the best potential, but I like the Gaisberg wines very much also. This wine showed beautifully. I decanted it at 4:00 and we drank it at 7:00, and it needed the time. Some found a bit of petrol on the nose, but I wasn't one of them. For me it is still about perfectly ripe yellow fruits and rock. There is lovely balance and harmony at 12% alcohol and it feels savory on the very long finish. Just excellent wine.

2007 Prager Riesling Smaragd Achleiten, $50. Also took many hours to open up, which I guess shouldn't be surprising. I love the 2007 vintage in Austria - it's my favorite of the recent vintages, but the wines are definitely in a closed phase. I decanted this for a few hours before pouring it back in the bottle and taking it to dinner, and it was still shut down for hours. That said, it opened eventually and the wine is excellent. Balanced, richly fruited, mineral, complex, and with a strong presence on the palate. A real beauty.

2006 Domaine de l'Anglore Côtes du Rhône Comeyre (magnum), $64. I loved this wine at a trade tasting maybe 5 years ago and I bought a magnum, thinking I would bring it to Thanksgiving dinner in a few years. It wasn't Thanksgiving, but I brought it to some dinner party, and wow, have my tastes changed. It is high quality wine, aromatic and tasty, but it smells more like !--Natural Wine--! than it does like old vines Carignan, and there is no sense of place whatsoever. Not a style of wine that interests or truly satisfies me.

2005 François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Les Choisilles, $28. I bought a few of these several years ago and first drank one only recently. This is one of Chidaine's dry wines and in the warm 2005 vintage it is 14% alcohol but seems lower because the wine is so well balanced, and the acidity keeps it bright and refreshing. Nose is just lovely, albeit a bit shy on day 1, and the aromas are perfectly delicate. Wool, beeswax, winter herbs like rosemary, yellow fruit, and all wispy and always moving. There is a lush feel to the palate but it is focused and essentially dry. Such lovely wine.

2005 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords, $13. I drank almost a case of this wine in 07 and 08, but saved a few bottles. Decided to check in on the wine, and time has clarified the aromas and flavors here. Especially on day two, there are lovely seashell aromas and citrus oils - grapefruit. The palate is balanced and has a bit of grain in the texture. A bit broad perhaps, not as focused I imagine as some other recent vintages will be as they age, but this is lovely wine.

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Lessons in a Bottle

Date: Mon, Jan 7, 2013 Wine Tasting

There are many things I learn when drinking wine. Here are some things I've been thinking, things I want to remember entering 2013, along with the bottles that helped to inspire the lessons:

There is no "perfect" moment, so don't waste life by waiting. Share and enjoy today.

But it's also important to be patient.

Accept the kindnesses of strangers.

Be gracious at all times.

Consume only what is necessary, not to excess simply because something is available.

Keep experimenting, never stop learning.

Things are not always as they seem.

Wonderful things of great value can come in modest packages.

There is nothing more valuable than a true friend.

Heres to a great 2013!

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Simple Things and Complex Things

Date: Mon, Dec 31, 2012 Wine Tasting

It was a holiday evening and I was at my good friend Peter's house for dinner. You already know that he is one of very finest wine writers and critics, and that he is the author of ChampagneGuide.net, and that he recently published a long-awaited Sherry book. But did you know that he is a wonderful cook?

Peter can cook anything but prefers to cook in the Japanese style. And on this Christmas eve, I hung around his kitchen while he prepared dinner. We talked about how his book is selling, how my work is going, about our plans for travel in the coming year, about how I miss my kids on the Christmas holidays, and all sorts of other things that good friends talk about. We drank Champagne. Good music wafted from the sound dock speakers.

Peter made several dishes but the centerpiece of our meal was rice. He uses a Donabe, a Japanese clay pot, to cook rice. The particular Donabe Peter uses is made of a special porous clay from the bottom of Biwa Lake in Iga, in Mie Prefecture. It is prized for the way it retains heat.

He used Koshihikari rice from the Niigata Prefecture in Japan. This is thought by many to be the finest rice of Japan. Peter rinsed the rice many times, massaging it with his hands, until the water ran almost clear. Then he spread it evenly in the bowl and let it dry. Then he combined water with a dash of fish sauce, sesame oil, and sake, and soaked the rice for about a half hour. He placed quartered Shitake mushrooms and large whole scallops on top of the rice and cooked it over high heat for 15 minutes and then let the rice rest for another 20 minutes. The whole process took about two hours from start to finish. As the rice rested, the kitchen and the living room filled with this intensely savory and gloriously appetizing aroma.

Peter opened the Donabe, coarsely chopped the scallops with a wooden spoon, fluffed the rice a little, and served it in bowls topped with scallions and mitsuba, a Japanese herb. This was the very best rice I have ever eaten, without any question. One of the best foods I have ever eaten. I will not try to describe the flavors because I'm not good enough with language to do so.

Since watching this preparation and eating this rice, I've thought some about how simple things can be so complex. I can enjoy the rice at a Chinese restaurant, or the rice I cook at home, and it tastes good. It is nice to eat with whatever other food I'm eating. I do not need rice to be the finest rice Japan has to offer, prepared in the finest of Donabes by an expert hand in order to appreciate it. But I'm glad that I now know a little tiny bit about this - about what is possible to achieve with rice. It's not that I will now look down upon all other rice, it's about the fact that there exists a complex set of tools and techniques for growing and cooking rice, and being aware of this makes me a more educated person. We mostly think of rice as a simple thing, and that doesn't reduce the pleasure we take in it. There is an elevated form of rice too, and that is also pleasurable, I would say immensely so. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

The same is true with so many things that we eat and drink - think of roasting a chicken! There are a million variations, including the chicken itself, temperature, type of pan, and other issues. People who care about roasting chicken have opinions on all of these things. Roast chicken is a simple thing that is also quite complex, should you choose to approach it that way. And although a decently prepared roast chicken is always enjoyable, some are finer than others. I think that experiencing and trying to understand things in their most elevated forms allows us to better understand the pleasures (and flaws) of their more common versions.

I hope that in the coming year I learn more about the complexities that seemingly simple things have to offer. And I hope to spend more time in the company of great friends, enjoying these things together. I hope the same for you, and happy new year!

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A Wine Service Pet Peeve, and Perhaps, a Solution

Date: Thu, Dec 20, 2012 Wine Tasting

Ready for a little complaining? It's the holidays, I know. But indulge me.

I was in Stockholm recently and ate dinner at two different restaurants. In both cases I found the wine service to be excellent. I remarked to my dining companions, who also are wine lovers, that I appreciated the service, in particular the fact that the servers were in no hurry whatsoever to pour our wine. Instead they would open a bottle, offer a taste, and then pour a small glass to each person. Then, they would walk away.

This might not sound terribly special to you, but I very much appreciated it. I find that in many restaurants, servers are in a rush to pour wine and they pour very large glasses, filling the vessel more than halfway. Filling the glass that high is just annoying - it's hard to handle the glass when it's so top-heavy. And I find it hard to enjoy the aromas when there is so much liquid in the glass sloshing around, and so little room left within the glass for air.

If I order wine at a restaurant I want to let it unfold and change in the glass, and I want to experience and enjoy those changes. It's hard to do that if before I've even come close to finishing what's in my glass, the server pounces and re-fills me.

That said, I can understand why servers do this. It comes down to tips. When people sit down and order a bottle of wine, the server anticipates selling a second bottle, so pouring high and quickly should lead to a higher bill and a bigger tip. Maybe this works some of the time, and some customers don't mind the quick and high pour. But I think it's a misguided strategy, even from the server's point of view. Here is why:

1) Happy customers leave bigger tips.

2) Two people dining together rarely order two bottles of wine. Sometimes they do, but I'm guessing very rarely. So when there are two people at the table, pouring fast and high typically results in the sale of 1 bottle of wine, the same number of bottles that sell when the server pours at a relaxed and leisurely pace. But those two diners will feel happier when they are allowed to enjoy their wine at a leisurely pace, their experience will be better. They are likely to tip more.

3) If a table of four or more people is inclined to order multiple bottles, they will do so because they want to drink wine, not because the server rushes them. Okay, sometimes people will say "what the hell" and order another bottle when the first disappears quickly. But the table that orders another bottle because they are rushed is probably not ordering expensive wine anyway, so the impact on the tip won't be huge. Allowing a table of four to be relaxed about enjoying their good wine encourages them to order more wine.

Here is an example of how a restaurant and a server lose revenue when they pour high and fast: I was with a friend at a popular Manhattan wine bar not long ago. We decided to splurge and ordered a bottle of Champagne. It was a wine I'd never tasted before and I wanted to take my time, to explore the wine. Our server essentially poured the whole bottle into our two glasses within minutes. We couldn't take a sip without having our glasses refilled, and poured way too high. We drank our wine, paid, and left. We might have ordered more wine, but the experience of drinking the Champagne was not so pleasant.

Here is an example of a relaxed pour leading to a good experience: A restaurant in Stockholm called Rolfs Kök ('Rolf's Kitchen' in English, I believe. Get your mind out of the gutter). There were four of us, and as we looked at the dinner menu I selected a bottle of 2002 Hirsch Riesling Heiligenstein from the wine list. The server tasted it and decanted the bottle at a side station, returned to the table, poured me a taste, and then each of us a small glass. He left the decanter at the table and went off to do other work. We talked, chose our dinner, enjoyed our wine. The few Austrian wines I've had from the 2002 vintage have been weird, and this one was too, but it opened nicely and was lovely to follow over an hour. Yes, we drank that wine over the course of about an hour. But by then we had decided upon our dinner, which would include Elk, and we ordered a bottle of 2007 Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin. The server decanted that too, and left the bottle at our table. He returned to pour small glasses as our main courses arrived. We refilled sometimes, he refilled sometimes, and it was relaxed. The wine was very good, strikingly pure and crackling with energy. One friend thought it needed another two or three years in the bottle, I thought it was lovely as is. We enjoyed having the opportunity to see how it changed in the glass. We left a very nice tip.

One of my dining companions in Stockholm commiserated with me on this pet peeve of mine, the high and fast pour. His wife laughed and agreed that the high and fast pour drives him crazy. My friend is an economist, however, and he often finds simple and efficient solutions to life's little problems.

"You know what I do about this now," he said to me. "If I order wine at a restaurant, when the server brings the wine I smile and very politely say to them 'If you don't mind, we will pour our own wine.'"

Wow. Simple and polite, perfectly reasonable. Can it really be that easy? I've thought about this now since my friend suggested it and maybe it is that easy. Sure, there will be times when I'll miss out on good wine service if I preempt the server and say that I'd like to pour my own wine. But more often, I think I will have a better experience (and leave a better tip because of it). I'll try this in early 2013 and let you know how it goes, because I know you are waiting with bated breath.

If this is a pet peeve of yours, how do you deal with it?

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Dinner of the Year, 2012 (Stockholm)

Date: Thu, Dec 13, 2012 Wine Tasting

I recently had the occasion to be in Stockholm, Sweden (!), a trip for work. The whole trip was amazing, but I want to tell you about one meal I had there, what easily for me is the dinner of the year in 2012. What made it so good? Well, the company, for starters. I work with really nice people. And the wine. The list was interesting and smart, and there were a few gems that are quite difficult to find back home. And the food was wonderful, showing an honest dedication to local ingredients and typical Swedish cuisine, and also prepared with a modern sensibility.

The restaurant is called Volt, and if you ever have the good fortune to be in Sweden, I strongly urge you to eat here. Not cheap at all, but one of those expensive meals where there is no doubt that you have gotten your money's worth.

While looking through the menus we were served this amuse, a plate of thinly sliced cured, spiced pork belly.

And this plate of lightly pickled pumpkin topped with pumpkin seeds. Both were appetizing and delicious.

The bread service was wonderful - crusty, airy, fresh bread, served with tangy local cultured butter and chicken liver paté. We had a 6 course meal coming, and yet we couldn't stop eating this bread.

I saw a few special bottles on the wine list, and we decided not to select from among them, instead ordering them all! And we got the 6-course tasting menu too. We were in Sweden, near the holidays. Why not splash out a little?

First we ordered this beautiful bottle of Cédric Bouchard 2006 Roses de Jeanne Le Creux d’Enfer Rosé. This wine, Bouchard's single vineyard rosé, has become essentially impossible to find here in the US.And it is very expensive. Oddly, in Sweden, one of the most expensive countries in the world for an American, and at this fancy restaurant, the wine was no more expensive than it would be on the shelf at a NYC retail shop. Except it will never again be on the shelf at a NYC retail shop because almost none is made and it is snapped up by collectors before it hits the shelves. It is a wonderful wine and a few years of age amplified the savory tones. After a few hours the wine showed clear bitter herbal notes that you might find in Campari.

We ate langoustine with seafood broth, thinly sliced turnips, caviar, and langoustine crackers.

At about this time I realized that we needed to submit to how good everything was going to be, and we ordered two bottles of Overnoy wine - the 2010 Chardonnay and the 2011 Poulsard. Our gracious and incredibly competent sommelier decnted the Poulsard for us and we enjoyed the beginning of the Chardonnay with the Langoustines.

And then came scallops, with raw cauliflower crumbles, gooseberries, and several "sea-lettuces." Excellent with the bright and expressive Chardonnay. Overnoy bottles are never uniform, and this bottle of Chardonnay was different from the bottle I drank in July. Not as perfect, not as focused. But it was lovely nonetheless.

We returned to Bouchard's Champagne for this fantastic dish of beef carpaccio with almond and parsley puree. Two summers ago I was at a ridiculous Bouchard dinner and we drank the 2007 Rosé and it was suggested that rare beef would be a great pairing. Well, on this night I was able to verify that indeed, this is a wonderful synergy of flavors.

Then we ate Pike Perch from the Baltic Sea, local waters. It was perfectly cooked, meltingly tender, and served with roast cabbage, fresh cockles, and capers fashioned from elderberries. Whoa, this was delicious and expertly prepared. And great with Overnoy's Chardonnay, which was becoming more and more detailed as time went by.

The sommelier appeared with the decanter of 2011 Overnoy Poulsard. "Like raspberry juice," he smiled. And he poured. I've had great bottles of Overnoy Poulsard, and also completely uninspiring bottles. If you drink the wine outside of France, there will be variation. This bottle was amazing, among the best Ive had. Such intense aromas of dried roses, so detailed and complex, such delicate texture and such presence in the mouth. As perfect as Poulsard can be, I would say. A wonderful and moving wine. My companions had never before had an Overnoy Poulsard and they were swooning. It was fun to watch.

We drank it with a dish of "fallow deer," a small variety of local deer. Very lean, it was served with Jerusalem artichokes and topped with fresh juniper berries. Yes, fresh green juniper berries. I've seen only the dried black ones here. These were vibrant and pungent and herbal and very compelling, and they amplified the forest undertones of the Poulsard. What a meal we were having!

After that dish we took our time finishing our wines, reveling in our good fortune. And then we had dessert. The best restaurant dessert I've had in years. An oval of green apple sorbet, tart, not sweet, served on a dollop of white chocolate pudding, white chocolatey but not sweet, topped with shards of frozen green apple and young pine needles. Absurdly delicious. And with this, a glass of sparkling wine from Anjou that smelled like pine needles, something the sommelier selected for us.

An incredible meal that I will remember for a long time. I hope that as 2012 comes to a close, you are enjoying delicious food and wine too, with good friends.

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