Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Champagne - it's what should be for dinner

There are many myths and legends in the wine world that drive me up the wall. But the one that really makes me insane (granted, not too difficult a thing to do) is the persistent insistence that Champagne is to be opened only for celebratory occasions. The Champagne houses have done such a fantastic job of educating (ie brainwashing) the masses that many people can't even fathom the thought of having bubbly with anything but a birthday cake or a New Year noisemaker.

Let's think about this.

Champagne is a wine that happens to have bubbles in it via its secondary fermentation. It comes from northeastern France, where the ground is chalky and the weather foul. This means the grapes have a hard time reaching the ripeness they'd need to make still wines. This also means they're full of acidity, just what is needed to match many types of food. Without the ripe fruit to balance that acidity, you're looking at some pretty mouth-puckering wines that would strip the enamel off your teeth. This acidity is the key. It survives the fermentations and is what balances the fruit and sugar that remain. It also allows Champagne to match and stand up to food, a perfect foil for most meals.

So why do most people refuse to believe or even comprehend this? Again, the Champagne houses are to blame. And when one says that they drink Champagne often (as I do), many folks look at me as if I'm nuts (granted, I probably am, but for many different reasons). The terms "decadent", "hedonistic" (admittedly a label I embrace), and "indulgent" are the usual reactions. How is it that one can drink a bottle of $20-40 still wine with dinner but if I were to drink a bottle of $30 Champagne I'm "indulgent"? Has the brain-washing come so far?!

Well, I am on a one-man crusade to fix this.

Champagne should be enjoyed like any other wine, for it is exactly that. A wine. It goes well with a variety of foods from a plethora of ethnicities. Sushi, warm fish dishes, chicken, duck, ice cream, sorbet, even filet mignon are all complimented by different Champagnes. It's just a matter of finding the right style to match the food.

For example, most styles (Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs) go with sushi. Blanc de Blancs (made from 100% Chardonnay) go well with lighter meats and fish, while Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir) are great with heartier dishes. Roses are great with appetizers, as they're dryly fruity with some nice crisp acidity to back them up. And sweeter styles are wonderful with many desserts, especially fruity ones (OK, maybe not chocolate).

In the interest of science and my own thirst, I tasted a selection of Champagnes that I could find in NYC for around $30. That's my cut-off for "house" Champagne, meaning something non-vintage that I can open without feeling guilty. Or indulgent.

And if you're wondering why you've never heard of any of these, let me explain. Most of these are what's euphemistically called "farmer fizz", or small producer Champagnes. These are wines that reflect not only where they're from but most importantly who made them. They're not from some big faceless corporation which puts more money into marketing than quality control. These guys are focusing on what they do well, ie grow grapes and make wine. They let the product speak for themselves, and boy do they have a lot to say!

So herein are my tasting notes from this admittedly pleasant ordeal:

-NV Champagne Ellner Brut Reserve
On the nose, this had some slight yeast and toast, with honey, light red fruits and even a slight herbal note. The palate had similar aspects, on a tart and nervous frame with fine bubbles. As it sat in the glass it seemed to gain weight and rondeur, the structure filling out ever so slightly and seeming to thicken somewhat.
Nice, but I was hoping for more.

-NV Bellefond de Besserat Cuvee des Moines Brut
Another night, another NV Champagne. Beautiful golden color, leading to soft aromas of white flowers and peach and even some honeyed notes after a while. On the palate, this showed a creamy, slightly sweet structure with more of the same notes, some light red fruits, and a long nutty finish.
Far too softly sweet for my tastes, I prefer more acidity in my bubbly. Still, for a newbie to the stuff, this might be adequate.

-NV Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart Brut
After the soft sweetness of the Bellefond de Besserat, this was a pleasant change of pace, and much more to my liking. On the nose, this was full of toast, yeast, coffee, lime, citrus and white flowery notes, with some green apple and bread dough. The palate was super tart and crisp, exactly what I look for in a NV Brut. Gorgeously balanced, with tons of yeast, toast, bread dough, cafe au lait, citrus, and even some melon, it led to a wonderfully tart finish that went on and on and on.
I was really surprised at how deep and complex this was, it was quite impressive.
Very good, especially at the price point (approx. $30).

-NV Diebolt Vallois Blanc de Blancs
Lovely and crisp, with nice lemon, pears and almonds on a tight, nervous frame that ends in a long, tart finish. Great mouthfeel, lovely length, just absolutely delicious.

See, it's easy, go ahead and try it. Pop a cork, amaze, horrify and stupify your friends, and when they make some snooty comment, tell them they can't have any. Ask a local store to find some Champagnes at a price point you feel comfortable with and see what happens. You just might be (pleasantly) surprised... And of course, it never hurts to be indulgent sometimes...


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Cooking Class Chez Chris

A few weeks ago my friend Chris organized a fantastic cooking class with a French chef. The menu was to include terrine of foie gras, hanger steak with red wine shallot sauce, aligot (mashed potatoes with cheese and butter), and steamed, blanced asparagus and for dessert a simple apple tart.

Needless to say it was a wonderful evening with some great wines, fantastic food and wonderful folks. Since we had a huge lobe of foie gras, Chef decided to only use one half for the terrine, and as a bonus he taught us how to sear it in a pan (leave the windows open, turn off the smoke detector!). What a great night!

The pictures can be found HERE (just click on the picture of the foie gras).

If anything, an evening like this serves to remind us of how precious friends and family can be. If we don't take the time out to really sit down, enjoy each others' company, we run the risk of taking everyone and everything around us for granted. Life is too short and precarious for that.

I am keeping this post short but will add more soon. Of that I promise...


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ramblin' in the Rhone (via Pictures!)

They grow stuff in this?
Really Rocky!
Aaah, here start the Chateauneuf vineyards!
The town of Chateauneuf du Pape
Which way do I go?
The Hermitage Hill
Steep sides of the Hermitage Hill
The Chapel at the top of the Hermitage Hill
More Steep Hillsides
Single-vine training

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Ramblin' in the Rhone

After my hedonistic Bacchanalia of liver abuse in Burgundy, I jumped into a rental car (what better type of vehicle to abuse?) and shot down the lovely highways of Southern France. It was a beautiful day, and my little car had no trouble hitting 150-160 kph (95-100 mph). Man, it is so much fun driving in Europe, the roads are well-maintained and the speed limits high (130 kph). The only drawback? VERY expensive tolls, but what the heck, if it gets me a pothole-free ground-level quasi-flight to my destination, I'll happily pay.

The Rhone Valley is a long expanse of steep hills following the curves of the Rhone River from Lyon almost down to the Mediterranean. The soil is very rocky and dry, with very high temperatures in the summer and a steady wind, the Mistral, which has been known to blow for over a third of the year and can drive people mad. If you haven't experienced the Mistral, you don't know how that constant pressure, that insistent howling can just reach into your head and scramble your brain. There are parts of the Rhone where trees grow straight for about a foot or two, then curve sharply to the South, a physical manifestation of the Mistral.

I ended up in Tain l'Hermitage, a charming if small town along the Rhone, with a beautiful pedestrian suspension bridge linking it to a sister city, Tournon. Looming over the town of Tain l'Hermitage is the Hermitage hill, an extremely steep, rocky promontory with a small chapel all the way at the very top. The story is that a knight returning from the Crusades, the Chevalier de Sterimberg, decided to live a hermit's life at the top of the small mountain, thus the name Hermitage Hill.
The Romans came through here as well, recognizing the stony soil and west-facing hillside as a perfect place to plant grapes. Of course, the ones making the decision were probably not the ones picking the vines...

It really is amazing that anything can grow in this soil, and in this heat to boot. It's dry most of the year as well, and to handle the constant push of the Mistral the wines are trained on single stakes as opposed to wires in the traditional Guyot training (see pic).
This is an absolutely wild and sauvage landscape, a beautiful world where Nature seems to want to resist Man's incursions by making his life as difficult as possible. As opposed to Burgundy, which is a virtual carpet of grapes from the Beaujolais to the very walls of the city of Dijon, the Rhone is a hodge-podge of vineyards clinging to steep hills following the Rhone and atop wind-swept, sunny plateaus, between which one finds the odd nuclear power plant and industrial site.
I spent the next two days meandering between the wineries which had interested me and rambling via the back-roads taking pictures, which I'll post later.
What a life.