You know that I'm joking. If I were to list 25 wines that I want to drink in hot weather, I cannot imagine that Cornas would appear. Who wants to drink rustic and earthy northern Rhône Syrah when it's very humid and 94 degrees outside?
But the other night I had dinner with a good friend who is somewhat of a short rib master. I wanted to show off a new short rib recipe I've been working on, and so that's what we ate. Heat and humidity be damned.
I braised short ribs (Slope Farms, of course) with Chipotle peppers inflected liquid. Nothing complicated - here's the recipe:
Salt and pepper the short ribs a day or two before cooking. Brown them well over high heat on all sides in a heavy bottomed pot. Remove the ribs, pour out the fat from the pot, lower the heat to medium, and add some oil. When it is hot, add chopped onions and a clove of lightly crushed garlic and stir, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Add salt here, and then a 28 oz. can of tomatoes - I like to use whole plum tomatoes and crush them with my hands. Add some chicken stock, about 2 cups let's say, stir well, and then add two chopped Chipotle peppers.
I used La Morena brand peppers in adobo sauce. The peppers aren't very big, so you might be thinking "Wow, only two peppers for all of those ribs and sauce?" I want the smokey spicy Chipotle aromas and flavors to be present, not to dominate, and you're going to braise this for a long time. I put a tight lid on the pot it in a 225 degree oven at about 9 at night and don't take it out until the kids wake up at 6 AM.
This dish is good no matter what, but there aren't many ingredients. If you use really good tomatoes and home made stock, it makes a big difference.
After the braising is done I remove the ribs and pour the fat off the top of the cooking liquid and purée it. Now comes the creative part. You can shred the meat and serve it with the sauce over pasta or use it as part of a taco.
But these are short ribs, after all, so I do the shredding with the leftovers. I like to serve them as is, over the sauce, which I like to reheat with a little bit of cream to make it feel more luxurious, topped with a scattering of cilantro and scallions. If you eat a small portion, it works even in the heat of summer.
But what to drink with this dish? Probably beer, but I'm stubborn and we wanted wine. I remembered my friend Peter telling me a little while ago that Syrah is very flexible and can work with dishes like this. So Adam dug around in his cellar and produced a fantastic bottle of wine, the 1997 Auguste Clape Cornas.
This is totally unlike the 2000 I had not too long ago, which was delicious and compelling, but much more rustic. The 1997 Clape is without question the most elegant Cornas that I've had. Intense with black olives and earth, but focused and narrow on the nose. And perfectly balanced on the palate, great intensity of flavor, but nothing juts out, not remotely clunky. Very elegant, pretty wine. It worked very well with the smokey spicy meat, assertive enough to hold its own, but graceful too. A completely lovely and delicious Cornas. And somehow it felt like good summer eating and drinking.
I recently did some of my best cooking of the year. It's tomato season here. I started with a few Maxwell's Farm heirloom tomatoes.
Beginning at 12 o'clock and moving clockwise, that's a Brandywine, a Purple Cherokee, and a Green Cherokee. The Brandywine is the sweetest of the three, the Purple Cherokee the most deeply tomato-ey, and the Green Cherokee the brightest and most acidic, and my personal favorite.
This is a recipe that you definitely can do yourself - do not be intimidated by what you're about to see. It's a lot of work, but the end result is worth it.
1) Select ripe but not mushy tomatoes that appeal to your eye.
2) Store them on the counter - never in the refrigerator.
3) Slice the tomatoes and if you wish, sprinkle them with salt.
4) Using a knife and fork, and perhaps a piece of bread, eat the tomatoes.
The problem, I think, is figuring out what to drink with this lovely summer treat. I have arrived at only one pairing that really makes me happy - I need more options. So please, you be the sommelier - what would you open with a plate of heirloom tomatoes?
I've been thinking a little bit about birth year wines lately. I'm going to be 40 years old not too long from now (absurd, as I still like to think of myself as a 27 year old) and I hope to find a special bottle from 1971 to share with friends on my birthday. 1971 was a good vintage in Burgundy and also in Piedmonte, so it shouldn't be too hard to find something interesting and delicious.
What do you do, though, if your birth year was a bad vintage? It's fun to drink birth year wine, and I think it's worth trying to find something anyway. But it's not so easy to find a bottle of wine that's in good condition after 35 years, even from a good vintage. An off vintage makes it that much more challenging to find something delicious and expressive, not merely a wine with the correct vintage number on the label.
A good friend had a birthday recently, and later this month he will very generously share a bottle of wine from his birth year with me. His birth year is 1973, not a great vintage in most places. But he knows enough about wine so that his search was very specifically directed, and he found something from the Loire Valley that should be fantastic - I'll let you know how it goes in a few weeks.
I've been having a lot of fun thinking about and slowly accumulating birth year wine for my daughters. They are 23 months apart in age, born in 2007 and 2008. I want to save wines for them that are meaningful to me in some way, and also wines that are great wines, wines that should be beautiful and moving in 16 or more years. Here's what I have for them so far:
Older daughter - 2007:
Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru La Chapelle, $27, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. BrooklynLady and I visited the Lafouges in 2006 when she was 7 months pregnant with our daughter. Okay, it's not Roumier or Lafarge, but I'd say that it's more meaningful. The daughter was there in the Lafouge cellars, inside her mommy's belly, when her mommy tasted this very wine (and spat, thank you very much). Middling vintages can sometimes be surprising, by the way. I recently had a 1995 La Chapelle and it was fantastic.
Domaine Michel Lafarge Volnay 1er Cru Clos des Chênes, $120, Becky Wasserman Selections. For our 1st anniversary dinner, BrooklynLady came home with a bottle of 2001 Lafarge Volnay. So this producer is meaningful too. And it's Lafarge Clos des Chênes, it should be darn good when she's old enough to drink it.
I've had a harder time with the whites. I've chosen wines that I think should age well. I'm waiting for vintage Champagne to be released, as 2007 is supposed to be a pretty good year. So far I've saved these white wines:
Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg, $29, Robert Chadderdon Imports. BrooklynLady and I love Loire Valley white wines, particularly Huët - who doesn't? This one should be great when she gets home from her prom.
Pierre Gonon St. Joseph Blanc Les Oliviers, $32, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. A weird one, in a way. A white wine from the Rhône Valley - do they age well? A lot of the time, no, but I think this one will. It's so intense and well balanced. We'll see what happens...
Gilbert Picq Chablis 1er Cru Vogros, $29, Polaner Imports. I love Picq's wines, I think they were great in 2007, and Vogros is their old vines 1er Cru that ages very well. I have high hopes for this one.
I would have saved something by Paul Pernot, who we also visited on that same trip, but his wines weren't supposed to be so great in 2007.
If you have more than one kid you'll know what I mean when I say this - the second child often gets the short end of the stick. I have hours of video of my first daughter. My second - perhaps 45 minutes. It's terrible. And so far, I have only one wine for her. I'll find more, but the 2008 Burgundies haven't really been released yet in NYC, never mind things like vintage Champagne. So far from 2008 I have:
Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg, $29, Robert Chadderdon Imports. There is going to be some overlap here. Younger daughter gets Huët Clos de Bourg too. And she could do a whole lot worse.
I was in Burgundy when BrooklynLady was pregnant with our second daughter, but I didn't go back to Lafouge. I visited Dujac, Roumier, Mugnier, Pierre Morey, Arlot, Rousseau, Pacalet, Le Moine, and Des Croix. 2nd daughter will definitely get something interesting from one or more of these producers.
Have I missed something? Was 2007 or 2008 fantastic somewhere and I should save the wine? What do you think about all of this birth year wine stuff. Please, share your thoughts.
The other night a friend and I unexpectedly wound up at Lupa for a light late night dinner. We ordered a few little things to start, Romano beans with ricotta (good), house cured tongue (ridiculously delicious), and clams with Fregola and basil. We then had the best Spaghetti alla Carbonara that I've ever eaten. A cloud of earthy pungency from the guanciale in every bite.
As good as everything was, it was the Fregola that I was thinking about the next day, a dish that had great potential but, if I may say so, was not perfectly executed. At Lupa the clams are very salty, I would say too salty. And the Fregola are perhaps cooked too long - they offer no resistance when chewed. Or perhaps they are using a brand that doesn't toast the pasta long enough, as they didn't have that nutty taste that I like. It didn't matter much because the dish tasted great - salty clams, Fregola, and the surprising lift of fresh basil. I decided that I had to try to make the dish at home.
I started with some Maxwell's Farm basil - very pungent. I salted and boiled a pot of water and cooked the Fregola for about 20 minutes, not longer. I like them to be just a little bit chewy.
I scrubbed a dozen Blue Moon clams and cooked them in a covered heavy-bottomed pot with butter, lemon, and a glug of white wine. I took the clams out of their shells and saved them and their cooking liquid.
I have no idea how they prepare the dish at Lupa. Onions? garlic? Neither? I decided that I wanted a little garlic and crushed red pepper as the flavor base. There was no red pepper in Lupa's version, but I wanted it. You got a problem with that?
Then I added the cooked Fregola and spoonful of their cooking liquid, then the clams and their cooking liquid, and simmered for a few minutes on very low heat, to try to marry the flavors and extract any remaining starch from the Fregola to get a little sauce. At the last moment I added the chopped basil and tossed the dish.
It was really quite good, and because my wife doesn't like clams, I got to eat the whole thing. One thing - the basil was not as lively and pungent in my version and I don't understand why. Should I have added it earlier and simmered it a bit?
What to drink with this dish? At Lupa, I was charged with selecting a wine and I tried to get something that would go with everything we ordered. I chose what I hoped would be a light and snappy red wine reminiscent of a Beaujolais, the 2007 Luigi Giusti Lacrima di Morro D'Alba, a wine from the Marche. It was fine, but not so great with the Fregola dish. At home I wanted a white, something saline and brisk.
I chose a Spanish wine (sorry MicheleColline, but I am not currently in possession of a bottle of Italian white wine), the 2009 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina, $20, De Maison Selections. This is made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, from very old vines - maybe 80 years old. It is only 10.5% alcohol, and it is dry as a bone. There is a little effervescence and the wine is crisp, salty, and absolutely refreshing. And if you step back and stop gulping it, which isn't easy to do, the old vine intensity and depth are unmistakable. It was a great match for the Fregola. The only problem was that although I got to eat all of the Fregola, BrooklynLady does in fact like this wine, so I had to share. I assure you that I will come up with some sort of scheme to avoid that in the future.
Just a couple more notes on new vintages of wines that I drink every year.
This one comes courtesy of Keith Levenberg who seems to have abandoned his blog The Picky Eater (the guy has a new baby, give him a break). I enjoyed his Cellar Tracker note on the 2009 Coudert Clos de la Roilette Fleurie Cuvée Tardive, $26, Louis/Dressner Selections, and received his permission to re-print it here:
This is my first taste of 2009 Beaujolais so I don't know if some other examples are bearing out people's speculation that the vintage may be marked by fat, overdone fruit. That is emphatically not the case here. Steve Martin had a memorable line in his novella Shopgirl: "When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore. These gloves aren't like the hard-working ones sold by L.L. Bean; these are so fine that a lady wearing them can still pick up a straight pin." The 2009 Clos de la Roilette Cuvee Tardive is made out of the same material as those gloves. This is the old-vine cuvée from Coudert and indeed what makes this special is that unique ability of very old vines to deliver intense flavor out of physical material that is so sheer and fine it's practically not even there. This is practically waifish with a refinement that is already very pinot noir-like in the fashion of Burgundies with an Audrey Hepburn figure, but the flavors show gamay's tart wild-berry side seasoned with something I find myself calling "mealy" for lack of a better term, kind of reminiscent of cereal and multigrain, already past the primary.I recently drank two newly released wines by Bernard Baudry. I love Baudry's wines in general, although I am learning that I prefer the wines from the more difficult vintages to the "great" ones. But I might be in the minority here, so please take the following with a healthy dose of "I need to drink those for myself." Just my opinion, that's all...
If you've ever wondered what wines available for the taking today have the potential to turn into tomorrow's sought-after collectibles that you'll kick yourself for not picking up when you had the chance, this is a pretty damn good candidate. It's an iconic Beaujolais, costs a whopping $5 more than the basic bottling, and has a production level somewhere around the quantities of Roumier Musigny. Only one of two things can happen. The first possibility is that it remains an insider's wine and the only way to experience a mature bottle will be to cellar it yourself, because the people who have them won't be selling. The other possibility is that collectors of top Burgundy realize they ought to have some top Beaujolais in their cellars, with the usual price consequences. Either way I'm glad to have stocked up.
Business travel finds me in Memphis, Tennessee. I'm going for dinner, on my own, to Bari Ristorante e Enoteca. They have a nice sized all-Italian wine list, including a lot of wines by the glass. I don't know what I'm going to eat, but it's 103 degrees here and it will probably be something on the lighter side. I'm willing to spend$35-$40 on wine.
What should I drink at Bari?
Some of my favorite wines have just been released in new vintages. I haven't had all of them yet, but I figured I'd share the news about the group that I've had at home with dinner:
And by the way, if these wines are representative of what's happening in general, 2009 in Beaujolais really is as awesome as they say. Buy the wines and drink them. Sure, pick a few that you are most interested in and lay a couple of bottles down, but these wines are drinking beautifully right now. Don't miss it.
2009 Marcel Lapierre Morgon, $22, Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Ripe and enticing, pure and clean, very fresh, this is bursting with red fruit and as if to suggest what we would be eating with this wine if we were already in heaven, an undertone of earthy cured meat. This wine is not perfect - I find the alcohol to be a bit awkward, although the bottle says only 13%. But I wouldn't be surprised if it is in fact higher. And in any case, it juts out a little. The this is, the wine is still delicious. I cannot imagine cellaring it, as it tastes so good now, and doesn't seem to be holding anything in reserve.
2009 Coudert Clos de la Roilette Fleurie, $20, Louis/Dressner Selections. Ripe and aromatic, very generous, plushly textured and with good body and richness, but without crossing into the land of overdone or huge. In other words, it's a solid standard deviation away from the ripeness mean, but still within the realm of normal. Will this age well? I don't see why not. There is plenty of acidity and the wine is fundamentally in balance. In this case though, I'm having a really hard time imagining why I would try to hold it. The drinking really is just that good right now.
2009 Clos de Tue-Boeuf Cheverny, $16, Louis/Dressner Selections. Pure joy. Vivid red fruit, when served cool the texture is not entirely smooth and that is a big part of the charm, the acids are strong, the aromatics are lovely, the wine is clean and absolutely well balanced, and the finish lingers longer than it has a right to considering its humble pedigree. You blend Pinot Noir and Gamay somewhere near Touraine and you can make a decent wine. Even if you are Thierry Puzelat, the wine is not always great. This time, it's great. What else can I say - pure joy.
2008 Pierre Gonon St. Joseph, $25, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. As good as this wine is, it's a bit of a disappointment. The past several vintages have been wonderful and this wine is very tasty too, but it isn't as strong as its predecessors and this is clear. It has the dark fruit, the olives, the wet soil, the finesse that I know of Gonon and his plots in St. Joseph, but it is lacking the complexity that I have come to expect and with air, the emptiness of the midpalate really shows. The price is right and this is good drinking, but don't believe that this is the best that Gonon can show you.
2009 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Clos des Briords, $16, Louis/Dressner Selections. This drinks differently than any young Briords that I've had, but that's okay because it's still absolutely delicious. This one is far more crowd friendly and approachable. The aromas are lovely and clear - lemon, a bit of yeast, spring water. The wine feels relaxed, as if it's already gone through that young tightly wound period. I've learned enough, however, about this wine to know that based on this one bottle, I have no idea what's really going on here. It certainly seems like it wants to be enjoyed early. And it tastes really good right now.
2008 Albert Boxler Edelzwicker Reserve, $16, Robert Chadderdon Selections. Sometimes the overall bigness and the residual sugar in Boxler's wines makes it hard for me to appreciate them on a practical level. Meaning, I respect what's going on, but I don't always want to open and drink them. Not so with this wine. This is the field blend of essentially every white grape grown by the estate. Yes, it is full bodied and big, unmistakably a Boxler wine, and there is residual sugar too. But the wine is very well balanced and actually feels lean and mineral on the finish. Herbs, pits, wildflowers, and bitter honey support and lend complexity to the wine, and it is so very satisfying. And flexible too - find something that doesn't eat well with this wine in the heat of summer, I dare you.
2000 López de Heredia Rioja Rosado Viña Tondonia Gran Riserva, $24, Imported by Polaner Selections. I haven't actually had an entire bottle of this yet, just glasses on several occasions. But I'm very excited about what I drank. This wine is perhaps more grounded than the 1998, a wine that I think is absolutely excellent, but a wine that took a year after release to show as well as it does now. That's the thing with these Lopez wines - they release them when they think they're ready, but maybe they should get a little more time in your cellar anyway. The 2000 has a darkly spicy, very focused character, and it is more attractive to me early on than the more tropical 1998 at this point in its life. Blood orange, salt, sherry, and so clean and pure. I hope I have the self-control to hold onto a few of these.
The other night a few friends helped me to taste through a load of Santorini wines. I've discovered these wines only recently and am still just beginning to understand them. Here are the basics, as I understand them:
--Assyrtiko is the most important grape grown on Santorini. It is yellowish and fleshy, and it retains its vigorous acidity even when very ripe. The other grapes that commonly appear in Santorini wines are Aidani and Athiri.
--Santorini sees a lot of sun and a lot of heat. Vines are trained in coiled baskets in order to shield the grapes from the sun. Even still, alcohol levels tend to be high.
--Soils are primarily volcanic rock and pumice. The pictures I've seen make it seem as though there is little soil, as I understand soil to be, in the vineyards of Santorini.
--Vines are very old - supposedly the average age on the island is about 80 years old. And the vines are un-grafted, as Phylloxera seems not to have taken root, so to speak, on Santorini.
--The wines really do need a few years to settle, to show their graceful side, as they are intense and assertive early on.
I tasted some of these wines before and found them to be rather compelling. On this night I wanted to drink them with dinner. And that didn't happen. I had friends over, I made dinner and didn't get to focus as I would have liked. But there was wine left in all but two of the bottles and I sat down with them thoughtfully on day 3. I'll share some notes, but first a few thoughts.
There are some sulfur issues with these wines. It can be confusing - are those smokey volcanic rock aromas, or sulfur aromas? With some bottles it was clearly sulfur, with others I felt confused. Another thing - the alcohol can be a bit jerky, particularly with the barrel fermented wines. That said, the best wines show a truly unique character - there are elements of sea spray, legumes like lentils or peas, and the minerals really smell like pumice, like the rough stone your mom might have had in the shower. Lastly, the 2007 vintage seems to be my favorite, although it is not one that the wine makers said was particularly good. Here's what we drank, in order of drinking (all notes are based on day 3 drinking):
2009 Sigalas Santorini, $20, Diamond Importers. I've had this wine several times now (most recently with lunch on the day before this dinner) and it shows a little differently each time. This one was smokey and savory with vibrant citrus fruit. The acidity is strong and the wine feels energetic. The bottle we had on the previous day with lunch showed more fruit, this one was more savory. In the end, I think this will do well with a few years in bottle.
2009 Gaia Santorini Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, $24, Athenee Imports (This wine was received as a sample). As the name implies, this is fermented with naturally occurring yeasts. There is a strong floral element to the nose that I like. This is a powerful wine, very rich and heavy, intense on the finish. Although I recognize that there is quality here, it's just too weighty for me in the end.
2008 Gaia Thalassitis, $22, Athenee Imports. Even on day 3, the sulfur just obscures the wine for me. Actually, I thought it more difficult on day 3 than when we had it with dinner. I hear that this needs time in the bottle, but I'm just not convinced about this wine.
2007 Sigalas Santorini, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). On day 3 this is without any question the best of all of the wines. It is perfectly integrated, graceful in its assertive power, pure, and clean. There is a top layer to the nose of white fruit, if that makes any sense. Under that there are stones, creamy lees, and sea spray. This is just a lovely wine, and if the 2009 is going to turn into this, then I'm in.
2007 Estate Argyros Santorini, $21, Athenee Imports. The nose was either very smokey or full of sulfur, and there was discussion about which was which at dinner. On day 3 there was no sulfur that I could detect. The nose was quite lovely with green peas or some sort of raw legume, and that smokey pumice sea spray thing that I get at the end of many of these wines. The palate, however, was not easy. The acids are so bright that it is literally like inhaling the spritz of a lemon, and it didn't feel balanced to me. Food helped, but not enough to make me go buy this again.
2007 Hatzidakis Santorini, $20, No import label (used to be Trireme Imports). This wine is 90% Assyrtiko, and then 5% Aidani and Athiri. I've had this wine several times now with different results each time. This bottle, sadly, was not the best one. There might be some botrytis, there is a lot of honey, some alcohol juts out. It shows on the palate too, the alcohol warmth, but it is basically a balanced wine. Other bottles have shown more of the sea foam and lentil thing that I find compelling.
2008 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). At the big Santorini tasting in May I was bowled over by the barrel fermented wines. This time, I think I preferred the stainless wines. The alcohol here is 14% and the oak is still dominant. There is a kernel of something floral, but it's all about the oak right now. The palate shows intensity and something salty, but as much as I might like to, I just don't have the experience seeing these wines age and I can't tell you what's going on here.
2007 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, $33, Diamond Importers. Is it the vintage? The extra year of aging? Who knows, but on day 3 this shows much better than the 2008. There is oak still, but also smokey pumice and preserved lemon on the nose. It is balanced and energetic on the palate with a gentle touch of sea spray on the finish. The oak flirts in and out though. Will the oak integrate over time, allowing the other components to show themselves? If so, this could be really good wine.
2008 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). The back label says that this wine is made from grapes of perfect ripeness harvested at night. I like Hatzidakis, but none of the wines showed particularly well on day 3, and this one was the most difficult. The alcohol is 15% according to the label and honestly I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher. The aromas are floral and very heady, but also hot, and there is something soapy in there. The palate is ripe and rich and to my taste, a bit overdone.
2004 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). Also 15% on the label, and still a huge wine, although a bit easier than the 2004. Based on the way these Nykteri wines showed, I'm more interested in the stainless wines from Hatzidakis.
I think I might have decided on my favorite rosé of the summer, so far. I'm not considering things like Tempier, Pradeaux, or the other Bandols. I think of those more as Bandol wines than as rosé anyway. But among the summer flood of generally inexpensive rosés - I think I've found a favorite.
I've always enjoyed white wines from Schloss Gobelsburg, but I'd never had the rosé until this summer. I'm not sure, but I think that 'Gobelsburger' is the second wine of Schloss Gobelsburg. This wine's name recalls the monks who managed the winery until 1995, and it is made from Zweigelt and St. Laurent grapes. It should cost about $15 and honestly it's great rosé, case-worthy, in my opinion.
2009 Gobelsburger Rosé Cistercien, $14, Terry Theise Selections / Michael Skurnik Imports. This is not a fruity rosé, so let's just get that out of the way first. There is fruit in this wine, but it shows up on the finish in a controlled little burst of red. The main body of the wine is more about the steely and sleek tone, the acidity and focus, and the aromas and flavors are more mineral than fruit. This wine reminds me very much of the 2008 Bernard Baudry Chinon Rosé in that it drinks more like a white wine than like a rosé. It is bottled under screw cap and a bit reductive at first, so open it 15 minutes before you want to drink it or just give it a vigorous swirl in the glass.
I love how versatile this wine is with food. Unlike rosés that are on the fruitier side (which I also love), this wine can elevate foods that are complex and to me anyway, not always easy to pair. For example, I never know what to drink with pesto.
Although in some ways they are polar opposites, the wine was great with this classic dish. Intensely herbal anise-tinged notes from the basil, umami from Parmesan cheese, savory walnuts...would that work with rosé? Yes, when it is a steely high acid and very pure wine. I'm telling you, when you deal with your summer basil, think of this wine.
On another evening, I knew that I wanted to drink this wine before deciding what to eat. Drinking this rosé, I can detect traces of that sour cream, white pepper thing that I often get from the Gruner Veltliners, and so I decided to try to eat something that would go well with Gruner.
I thinly sliced a smoked duck breast and roasted some small white turnips and pink radishes. There is nothing Austrian about Fregola, the Sardinian pasta balls made from coarse semolina that are toasted after being dried. But I like the way the nutty tasting Fregola absorb simple flavors like butter and white pepper, and so that was it. This pairing was more about synergy - the flavors of the wine seemed to recognize the smoked duck and the radishes, to understand that white pepper is friendly.
I hate the idea that $15 wines, particularly rosés, are not serious wines. This is a serious wine, and unless you clean the racks I will be drinking a lot of it this summer.
It's been very hot lately in NYC. I don't mind it so much, actually. I prefer very hot to very cold. On a super hot day recently I decided to light the grill and attempt to smoke a hunk of pork shoulder. I know that sounds kind of odd - hot day, several hours of hot grill. But there is something about cooking on a super hot day that I find to be especially satisfying.
This was impromptu pork, and so instead of seasoning with salt and pepper at least 24 hours in advance, this shoulder hunk got only a few hours of salt time. In fact, this might be a good time for the BBQ purists out there to simply turn off the TV and come back tomorrow - you might be shocked and offended by what you're about to see. Or, take a deep breath, and try to find the good in it. Not everyone can be from Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, or the Carolinas, you know.
Hardwood coals lit, burned down for a while, pork in a pan next to the coals, mesquite soaked in water on the coals, smoke for a while, more mesquite, smoke some more, more mesquite, perhaps a fresh piece of coal, more smoking.
End result above. I managed only about 3 and a half hours on the grill, which is just the beginning in real BBQ country, but the afternoon was drawing to a close and I needed to do things like get dinner ready for the kids.
To my surprise and delight, the meat shred easily and became something like "pulled pork." It was smokey and just a bit moist, and pretty darn tasty. And there was even a half centimeter of red where the smoke penetrated.
So we all had pulled pork sandwiches. I topped them with a simple cole slaw and opened a can of baked beans. The kids loved it - the cole slaw took a little convincing, but they ate that too in the end. I threw a handful of dried crushed chili flakes into a jar of plain white vinegar (dare I say Carolina style?) and the adults got a little bowl of that for sandwich dousing purposes.
What to drink with this porky feast? Beer is great, and there are certainly plenty of wines that I think would go well. Iced tea is nice too.
But on this evening I drank Rye whiskey, Michter's, one of my favorites at any price point, and at about $35, much cheaper than most straight Rye whiskeys. This was a good end to a summer day.
The other night, and for the first time in my life, I drank a bottle of Richebourg. I've tasted Richebourg before, but never opened a bottle and drank it, watched the story unfold in the glass. I have a rather entrepreneurial friend who is investigating the viability of buying and selling luxury wines. He decided that he wanted to drink one of his acquisitions, and I was fortunate enough to be in the room at the time. He walked over with this bottle, as if he was going to open it.
But even my friend is not that crazy, to open a 2005 La Tâche just like that, on a random Thursday night, and without a proper dinner. I didn't even want to hold this bottle in my hands. I mean, what if I sneezed and dropped it? That's $2,500, thank you very much.
But he did open a bottle of 2000 Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Richebourg. I'm not going to lie to you - I was excited to the point of being jittery. Just in case you're not familiar with it, Richebourg is one of the most exalted of all of the Grand Crus in Vosne-Romanée and therefore in all Burgundy. These are wines that in recent vintages begin at something like $250, and more, depending on the producer. Richebourg is a wine that is mostly consumed by the wealthiest of wine collectors, and also by people in the wine trade who have access to bottles at prices that us retail shoppers will never see.
The crazy thing is, while drinking it, my friend and I agreed that it was not a great wine. And that in no way diminished the experience of drinking it. I savored every sniff and sip. It was fascinating to drink this wine and to talk about it, to try and understand what was happening there. In the end, I think it was a below average version of a great wine, and both of those things showed clearly - the problems with the wine were evident, and so was the greatness of Richebourg.
2000 was not as hot as 2003 but it was a very warm year. Apparently there also were problems with rot. Many 2000's are drinking well now, perhaps even the Grand Crus are drinking well earlier than they do in more typical vintages. This particular wine was essentially ready to drink, in my estimation. It took 10 minutes or so to get used to being on the outside, but it was quite accessible, the tannins were not at all fully resolved but they were mature. The wine didn't really evolve much in the glass over the next 90 minutes.
Regarding the producer, there are many different wines made by someone whose family name is Gros. My understanding is that Gros Frère et Soeur has a good reputation, but is not the best of the Gros family growers, nor are they the worst.
Problems first - the alcohol felt strong and it unbalanced the wine. We checked the label and it was in fact 14%. Probably due to the warmth of the vintage and the high degree of ripeness, but I also wouldn't be surprised if this wine was chaptalized. Sometimes the sweetness felt like it came from something other than fruit, but that also might simply be the oak treatment. The acidity was not strong enough to anchor the fruit and the overall effect was a bit heavy. And the finish fell off rather quickly, which is not what you might expect from a wine of this nobility.
Now, the good stuff - in spite of everything I just said, there were great things about this wine. There was a knot of power and grace in there that was clearly recognizable, and very intriguing. Spices and orange peel and clean soil aromas, assertive aromas that made themselves felt through the alcohol and other problems, and somehow managed to convey a sense of grace. Same thing on the palate - there was a immutable beauty, although finding it did sometimes require close attention. And I have no problem with that. I hope I never drink a wine like Richebourg without paying very close attention.
Perhaps there are some places that are so great, Richebourg among them, that in any reasonable hands, it is not possible to hide its greatness. Bad vintage, overly aggressive oak program, too much extraction, whatever the specific problems way be, perhaps there is no way to mute something like Richebourg. I don't know this personally, but I hope I get to drink another example one day.
I want to tell you about what I think is one of the best wine values in Champagne, a wine made by René Geoffroy. All of René Geoffroy's wines are compelling, from the wildly energetic Rosé de Saignée to the refined Volupté to the truly fine "entry level" wine, a non-vintage wine called Expression. It is primarily Meunier and it is a delicious wine that offers more complexity and finesse than one might expect from a non vintage wine.
There is another wine in the portfolio, a wine that has quietly amazed me since the first time I tasted it. I'm talking about Empriente, the Pinot Noir based wine made from a single vintage, although it is not a vintage wine. This is a brilliant wine every year, easily equal in quality to most vintage wines I've drunk, and it is priced like a high quality non-vintage wine at about $55 in NYC. The problem is, hardly anyone sells the wine. I've looked for this wine for years without success. I did find some recently, however, and the other night I enjoyed sharing a bottle with friends after dinner.
Here is what Peter Liem of ChampagneGuide.net has to say about Empriente:
Empreinte is pure Cumières, made predominantly from pinot noir and always made from a single year, which is stated on the back label rather than on the front. While all three of Champagne’s major grape varieties are grown in Cumières, the village is known primarily for its pinot noir, and Geoffroy believes that Empreinte, which means “footprint”, is the cuvée that best expresses the Cumières terroir. For simplicity’s sake, Geoffroy usually says that the Empreinte is a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay, all fermented in large oak foudres, but in fact this changes considerably from one year to the next.NV René Geoffroy Champagne Empriente, $55, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports. We drank the 2004, and this wine is still in the early part of its life. It took a solid half hour to fully reveal itself, but the reward was worth waiting for. This wine is in perfect balance - it has everything and nothing juts out even a little bit. The expression of fruit here is so delicate - tiny thick skinned red berries, pure and intense. And oddly, considering that this wine is mostly Pinot, there was a unmistakable lemon note to the nose and palate once the wine opened up - the Chardonnay in the blend (12%) showed more of its character than might be expected. Underneath this red lemony fruit is the layer that for me really defines this wine - there is a bass note of chalk here that everything rests upon, and it is graceful, and the overall effect is one of subtlety and finesse.
As I was saying in the last post, there was discussion at the table about the contents of the old Vallana Spanna wines we drank. Were these wines made purely of Nebbiolo? Were they reconditioned - re-bottled and perhaps topped up with some newer wine?
It's tempting to say that the answers don't matter - these are old wines that were made before there were controls that dictated what was allowed and what wasn't. There will never be a way to know for sure what's in these bottles. Why not simply drink them and enjoy them?
Well, that's what we did. But I'm not entirely satisfied with that idea because it would cost about $100 to buy one of the bottles we drank, others would be more expensive. I like to know the grapes used to make my $14 rosé - I want to know what was used here too. Maybe I feel entitled because it's expected now with food to be able to ask the provenance of the tiniest grain of salt on the plate. Should that extend to wine? I have this idea that with wine, particularly with expensive wine, I should be able to find out what's in the bottle. Of course it isn't always possible, and with the Vallana Spanna wines, there are questions and few definitive answers.
Since I know so little about this sort of thing, I'll share with you what a few knowledgeable people had to say.
Before going to the dinner I told Peter about it and showed him the list of wines we would drink, hoping that he would help me to build some context for what I would experience. Peter made sure to explain that he is an agnostic on this issue, that for him it is purely a sensory experience that forms his opinion. One of the things he said was this:
That's a fantastic Vallana lineup. Back in Portland we did a number of dinners like that, when the wines were first unearthed by the Rare Wine Company about ten years ago. They were very affordable back then (comparatively speaking), but unfortunately now they've been "discovered". The '58s are incredibly youthful, as is '61 Campi Raudii. Anyway, they're all great. Hope you enjoy them. Just between you and me (sorry Peter - ed.), you should open a Taurasi or other aglianico tonight, and then tell me if you don't find those same aromas in the Vallanas! I've long thought that those old Vallanas aren't 100% nebbiolo (or spanna), although it doesn't bother me one bit. I like to think that they were bulking it up with aglianico, and 50 years later we're discovering how noble aglianico can really be.Levi agreed that the wines are likely not to be pure Nebbiolo, and as Peter said, this doesn't bother him a bit.
If these wines were represented the way Burgundy wines are represented, as pure Pinot from one specific vineyard, that would be problematic. But they're not represented that way. The techniques used to make these wines are not those used to make traditional Barolo and Nebbiolo wines - I think these Spanna were made using dried grapes for example. so should we dismiss them? No, they're intensely expressive wines and I think they taste very much of Piedmonte, they have a cut that I recognize as Piedmontese.I asked Levi if he thinks that Aglianico was added to the Vallana Spanna wines we drank. He said it is possible, but that he doubts it.
That's pretty far to go, from Campania to Piedmonte. The roads were unpaved, there is no river to use for sending the grapes. Why use Aglianico if they had local grapes that would work the same way, like Vespolina, Bornarda, and Uva Rara? The grapes are similar - Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and people don't have the reference point to say "wow, that tastes like Uva Rara" when it might well be Uva Rara, not Aglianico. Also, Vallana was using chestnut to age the wines and that has a taste that people might identify as Aglianico - chestnut is cheaper than oak and it was used to age wine back then in Campania too. Look - we drink this and say "this doesn't really taste like Nebbiolo, it tastes like Aglianico. But there are other questions too. To what extent is this stuff made from dried grapes? Also there is the old wine sweetness, the still intact sugar that you can taste from the chaptalization. There's a lot going on here.I talked with Jeremy Parzen, who wrote a fun and informative post in 2007 that provides lots of context for Vallana Spanna. Jeremy has had several opportunities to drink Vallana Spanna and I asked him what he thinks might be in these bottles.
Remember that in the 1950's and 60's it was rare to have a very good vintage. Two great vintages in a row - forget it. It was so cold, they had trouble getting enough alcohol in the wines because the grapes rarely developed enough sugar. Now it's easy - it's much warmer, there are many more good vintages today than in the past. A wine maker recently told me that global warming has made him rich. Anyway, that was a time when you needed to be able to sell a lot of wine to people who were going to put it on the table and open it. If the vintage was bad, you better get creative and figure out how to sell wine or else you might lose your clients. Aglianico from the south was riper and could help raise alcohol levels. I have no doubt that Aglianico regularly made it into Nebbiolo wines during those times.I asked Jeremy how this would have actually worked. What about the bad roads, the costs of transporting grapes if other grapes were available locally that might have helped - Bornarda, Vespolina, Uva Rara.
It's true, the roads were bad, but Italy had a very well developed canal system, the vestiges of which can still be seen today. Almost all of Italy was navigable by canal in those days. It would have been possible to get the grapes to Piedmonte that way. And if the vintage was bad, Bornarda, Vespolina, and Uva Rara wouldn't have been much help if they also came from a thin vintage. I don't taste Aglianico in those wines, I taste Nebbiolo. but 1955 and 1958 were very good vintages and maybe they didn't need to bulk up the wines. I agree, though, that the wines clearly have been reconditioned. They are just so fresh - more so than Giacomo Conterno wines that I've had from those same years, for example.I asked Jeremy if he feels that Vallana Spanna are wines that express terroir, or are they wines of blending and conditioning.
My concept of terroir includes people and tradition - it's not just place. These are distinct wines that taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte - a little lighter and not quite as tannic as Langhe wines. In the 1950's and 60's, east Piedmont and Lombardy were where fine Nebbiolo came from. It wasn't until the early 70's that Barolo and Barbaresco emerged as the place for the finest Nebbiolo and the single vineyard as terroir idea only began there at that same time. Personally, I think that the greatest Barolo and Barbaresco are not single vineyard wines, but that's another story. In the 50's and 60's, people making Spanna traditionally blended their wines - they had to in order to make a living. They weren't making wines so that some one could age them for decades. They needed to sell wine, good wine, to their clients. Some say that Syrah might have made it into Spanna at times. I wouldn't doubt it. Part of the terroir concept regarding Spanna involves blending and perhaps grapes from far away. Still, though, these wines to me taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte.I've heard similar stories about Burgundy too, by the way. That Syrah was used to fortify the wines at times. It goes to show that the sensibility that real wines should be purely of one place and that demands an exactitude with regard to blending - this is a purely modern phenomenon. In the good old days, it was far less clear than now what was in the bottle.
Even if like me, you are an ignoramus when it comes to Italian wine, if some one asked you to name the places where the finest wines made of Nebbiolo come from, you would say Barolo and Barbaresco. But it wasn't always this way. As Jeremy Parzen, a scholar of many things, including Italian wine, can tell you, Barolo and Barbaresco emerged in the 1970's as the places where the finest Nebbiolo wines were grown. Many great wines were and continue to be made in other parts of Piedmonte.
Antonio Vallana is one of the producers who made fine Nebbiolo wines in the '50s and '60s. His family's wines were brought to the US about a decade ago and have since been discovered by the Italian wine loving community. I drank one of them two years ago at a dinner in Portland the first time I met Peter Liem. Re-reading what I wrote about the wine, it seems as though I liked it.
Not too long ago my pal Levi Dalton invited me to a dinner hosted by Chris Cannon, one of the owners of the restaurant Alto. Levi is the head Sommelier at Alto and he organizes truly ridiculous wine dinners from time to time. To be invited at all is a rare treat, and in an absurdly generous gesture, I was the guest of Chris Cannon and the restaurant. It began like this - Levi asked me if I knew Vallana Spanna.
I said that I drank one once, but that I didn't know the wines. Levi found this to be amusing and perhaps a little hard to believe.
But then he said "No really, you're okay Brooklynguy. Want to come to a Vallana Spanna dinner?"
Yes, yes I do. This wasn't some ordinary dinner - there were some heavy hitters at the table. I'm talking about Eric Asimov, Jaime Wolff, Chris Cannon, John Slover, and Michael Wheeler, to name a few. What an opportunity - to sit down with these and a few others who know so much about wine, and to drink a load of old Vallana Spanna together. Here are the wines the Levi poured:
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Spanna del Piemonte 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Catuli Ara 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Gattinariae 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Campi Raudii et Catuli Ara, Riserva Catulus 1961
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano, Camino 1964
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano 1968
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Cinque Castelli 1967
We drank other things too, but these old Nebbiolos (Spanna is another name for Nebbiolo) were the point of the dinner. Levi wanted to understand these wines better, and he figured this would be a good way to do it.
I took a few notes and I'll share some thoughts on the wines, but honestly I was more interested in focusing on the wines and talking with my neighbors than on keeping tasting notes.
We drank the wines in several flights and the flight that I liked the best was the one with the wines from 1964, 1967, and 1968. These wines truly fascinated me - I could have spent the whole dinner with only them and walked away happy, if still a little confused. Levi opened the wines hours before hand, by the way. And still, poured from the bottle, the wines changed a lot in the glass. The 1964 (supposedly a great vintage) and the 1967 (a good vintage) both showed this amazing bouillon cube savory character on the nose. At first this dominated the nose, but the wines grew a bit in the glass, became more detailed. The '64 was an amazing wine - vibrant and fresh on the palate, fruit and spice, savory and herbal, mature and regal, gentle and perfectly balanced. The '67 was excellent too, and I thought it was of the same cut as the '64, although not as perfect of a wine. The '68 was more overtly brawny, and although it was delicious, I didn't find it to be as compelling as the other two.
The 1961 Riserva Catulus was also excellent, but very different from the wines that preceded it. It felt as though some of the grapes had been dried before pressing, perhaps in the style of an Amarone. The trio of wines from 1958 were all interesting and it felt like history in a glass. But I must say, these wines felt remarkably young and fresh considering that they are over 50 years old. There was talk at the table about whether or not these wines had been reconditioned, and the consensus was yes, they had.
There were other interesting questions about the wines - were they in fact made of pure Nebbiolo? If not, what else was in these wines? This has gone on long enough already, so I'll save that discussion for the next post. And I will leave you with this, two of the best things I have eaten in a while, both from this dinner:
Terrine di Coda di Bue e Fegato Grasso, or country-style oxtail and foie gras terrine, pear mostarda, and pickled chanterelles. Utterly ridiculous with old Nebbiolo.
Sformato di Mandorle con Lumache, or robiola and almond sformato (like a flan), braised snail ragu, topped with shredded almonds and black truffles. Again, with old Nebbiolo, this was a sort of hedonism that one isn't often able to indulge in.
Thank you again Levi and Alto for this fantastic evening!
A discussion of the specific contents of the bottles up next...