Monday, June 30, 2008

A New Addition to the Portfolio

I've been searching for a while for a high-quality, low-cost Muscadet that I could put my name on. Finding a good wine, from any region, that I can represent is tougher than you think. There's a lot of searching, negotiating, slurping and spitting before finding one that meets my stringent criteria (price is of course a big factor, but I also want it to be well-made). And when I do find one, there is of course the discussions as to exclusivity, are they already imported, etc... Heck, I haven't added a wine to the portfolio in months, sometimes I think I might be too stringent.

So I was really excited when I tasted a small producer's bottle of Muscadet the other day. We left this sample open for hours and it kept getting better and better, truly shocking our oh-so-sophisticated (yeah, right) and jaded palates. I quickly got on the phone, and after chatting with the owner/winemaker/main grape picker, had a deal for exclusive distribution rights in the US.

Now let me introduce you to Jean Aubron, from the small town of Vallet:

His family has been making wines there since 1843, tending 11 hectares of enclosed vineyards, one of which is called Le Grand Fief de l’Audigère. His vineyards sit on calcium-rich deposits, which really make the grapes work for a living and this in turn allows the wine to really shine brightly. He isn't biodynamic, he's not fully organic, but instead opts to use the best practices of both and does what's called in French lutte raisonnée. This translates roughly to sustainable agriculture. To say I'm psyched to have found Jean is an understatement, he's doing some great, passionate work and it's really showing in his wine.

The village of Vallet is just southeast of the city of Nantes, on the Atlantic Coast. Jean's neighbors include some of the most beautiful chateaux in the Loire Valley, though of course this has no bearing on the quality of the wine. It does make for some pretty pictures, no?

The wines are made in stainless steel tanks, as can be seen in the picture below.

Then they age on their lees (the dead yeast cells - not as disgusting as it sounds) for 6-10 months depending on the vintage's requirements. What does this do? It adds a certain richness to the wine's mouthfeel, making it seem "rounder" in the mouth. Without this extra time, the wine would be mouth-puckeringly, almost painfully, lean and steely. As it is, the acidity in the wine seemed to strip the enamel off my teeth, but then again I'm an acid-freak and love that.

What to eat with wines like this? The classic accompaniement is fruits de mer, several ice platters full of seafood and shellfish, stacked on metal legs. To put it mildly, this is an awesome match.

And what does it taste like? The Grand Fief de l’Audigère Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie is a lovely, flowery and briney wine, a true showcase of its terroir.
Lemon, lime, white flowers and salty notes of the sea vie for your attention, with a rich yet minerally mouthfeel and striking acidity that balances everything on the palate. This bottle should retail in the $11-14 range, depending on my customers' mark-ups of course.

As you can see, the label is modern, clean yet classic, something I always appreciate when seeking new wines for my book. It should be available in the upcoming months, assuming I can get someone to grab it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Peter Pratt's Summer Tasting

This past Sunday another horde of intrepid wine lovers headed to the secluded Peter Pratt's Inn in Yorktown Heights, north of New York City, to graze on cuts of grilled meats, pounce on fried chicken breasts and feast on roasted potatoes and onions. And, of course, to sample a ridiculous amount of delicious wine, young and old.

I had the pleasure of sitting at the Older California table. Here, we enjoyed wines that reflected the beauty and grace that were the style of winemaking back in the day. Now, if only modern winemakers could tone it down a notch (or ten), pick less ripe grapes and use less oak, we'd be enjoying more food-friendly wines instead of the unbalanced massive oak, fruit and alcohol bombs we see today.

Not one of our bottles was over 14% alcohol, and most reminded me of older Bordeaux, with notes of leather, cigar box and lovely funk, yet maintaining the beautiful fruit that is California's birthright. The 1977 Heitz Martha's Vineyard showed that terroir does exist in CA, with its menthol aromas and sweet black fruit notes. For those who are unaware, there are actual mentholyptus trees in the Martha's Vineyard in Napa Valley, and perhaps this explains how Heitz's Martha's always has that tinge of mint.

Many wine drinkers these days are unaware that CA was trying to emulate Bordeaux at the time. They weren't focused on making fruit bombs that would blow away your palate, they were trying to make balanced wines that were both food friendly and delicious. Now, of course, the situation is reversed, with many Bordelais shooting for excessively ripe (in my book) grapes to make big, bold wines that may or may not age. The jury is out on that one.

Yes, there were a few dead bottles, noteably the 1978 Mondavi Private Reserve Pinot Noir but the wines that survived were delicious and fantastic with the food. Most importantly, you had to make an effort to get a serious buzz off these wines, so you could taste more and enjoy more.

Here's the list of what we tasted at our table (there were other themed tables, such as the self-described Aussie Fruit Bomb Table - I got intoxicated from the fumes when I made the mistake of walking within 2 feet of the table, or the Rhone-ish Table where there were a few gems to be found):

-1998 Taittinger Comte de Champagne= super young but fantastic
-2005 Kunstler Stielweg Old Vines Riesling= delicious, crispy, young
-1978 Mondavi Private Reserve Pinot Noir= DOA
-1977 Mondavi Cabernet= good
-1973 Burgess Cellars Cabernet= surprisingly good
-1979 BV Private Reserve Cabernet= not bad, was hoping for better
-??? Mystery Red (1992 Konrad Charbono Mendocino County)= surprisingly delicious
-1969 Martini Mountain Cabernet= not bad
-1977 Chateau Montelena Cabernet= very good, better than the 1979
-1983 Inglenook Neibaum Reserve= so-so
-1971 German Riesling= delicious, lovely petrol notes and good fruit
-1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel= DOA
-1977 BV Private Reserve Cabernet= delicious
-1980 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace= very good
-1977 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard= my WOTN (Wine Of The Night), fantastic
-1975 BV Private Reserve= not bad, but not great
-Etienne Brana Poire Williams= fantastic as usual, this was the left-overs from the great Irouléguy tasting.

Cigars were smoked afterward, my Quintero Londres Extra matching deliciously with the Brana Eau de Vie.

But most importantly were the friendships made, rekindled and strengthened during this event, with many folks coming out of the woodwork, some of which aren't seen for years at a time. The sense of camraderie was evident, as it always is amongst a bunch of like-minded, passionate souls. For wine is a convivial thing, it brings people together: you can not (or at least should not) drink a bottle alone, and sharing something you love with others who recognize and appreciate it is a small wonder in life.

Ah, crap, I'm getting all philosophical. Here are some pictures before I get all teary-eyed.


Friday, June 20, 2008

The Great Irouléguy Tasting & a Guest Blogger!

The what? I know, I know, you are probably wondering what the heck is that word up there. It's the name of a region in the Basque area of the South of France, in the Pyrenées mountains separating France from Spain. If you want to pronounce it, imagine it's spelled "Ee-Roo-Lay-Guee" and you'll be close enough. I had visited this area in July of 2007 (links here and here) and found the food and wines to be rustic yet delicious, and the people warm if a bit standoffish at first.

Vines here are grown on steep mountainsides that have been terraced, which is quite a sight when you imagine the work necessary to prune and pick the grapes. How steep? Take a look at this:

and this:

If the mountains were much higher, you could probably turn some of these into ski resorts!

At the instigation of fellow wine-lover Zachary Ross, an Irouléguy tasting was organized at a wonderful Tribeca restaurant, La Sirene. The food was excellent and the reception warm, so I'll be sure to head back soon. Zach's notes and knowledge of the wines was so impressive that I decided to let him be my very first Guest Blogger, something I'll do from time to time when I'm too busy or too lazy to write anything (probably that latter one). So without more of my babbling, here is Zach's write-up:

An intrepid group of NYer with obscurist interests gathered last night for one of the more esoteric tastings of recent vintage. The theme was wines from Irouléguy, a tiny appellation in the Pays Basque of Southwest France. Actually, I believe Irouléguy is one of the smallest AOC in France, with a local cooperative and only about 10 independent producers. Of those, about five of them are imported to the United States. We had wines from four of them last night, which is pretty good considering several of them had to be sourced from out of state. It's no big deal, though, because none of the wines from Irouléguy will break the bank; the most expensive wine we had (not including shipping) was about $30.

I had a great time tasting (er, drinking, I have a headache today) all these wines and meeting Ben, Michel, Ramon, and Izzy, and seeing Cliff once again. The cassoulet was pretty darn good, too. Thanks to everyone for making this happen.

It wasn't really a night for note-taking (a couple of us tried but that seemed to fall by the wayside as the bottle count got higher), but I did take away these impressions:

We started with two whites. Irouléguy whites are generally composed of the troika of Southwestern varieties, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. These were no exception. From what I have read, white wines all but disappeared from Irouléguy until about 40 years ago. Both whites cried for food, and seemed to go pretty well with the various seafood appetizers we ordered.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea "Hegoxuri" -- the most expensive wine of the night. Very acidic with good body, very small fruit presence, a sort of resinous pine note, and a tart, cranberry-like finish (Izzy called that). I really dig this wine, most of the others preferred the Ilori.

-2005 Domaine Brana "Ilori" - minerally nose, very fresh, again an acid bomb but with more sprightly fruit (but not that much fruit) and a somewhat lighter body. Nicely balanced and a great summer white. About $17.

Then we moved on to the reds. These were all composed variously of Tannat, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

-2005 Domaine Brana "Ohitza" -- Brana's entry-level red wine. Tannat with Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon. Brana apparently prefers Cab Franc to Tannat, alleging that Cab Franc has been planted in Irouléguy longer than the signature Tannat (I have no idea if he is right or not), so I believe that in this wine there is more Tannat than his upper-level wines. Fresh with red fruits, earth, some leafy tobaccoish notes, a little spice, no sense of oak. Good.

-2004 Domaine Brana "Harri Gorri" -- the wine that started it all. It was a note I posted on this wine that prompted the offline. This is one step up from the Ohitza, and as such I believe it has less Tannat -- just the minimum 40% the AOC rules specify. (It's 35% Cab Franc and 25% Cab Sauv). This has more heft and is less rustic than the Ohitza, sturdy with fruit toward the blacker end of the spectrum. Cliff sensed oak, and the wine is aged in barrels that have been used twice to five times. I like this wine, though of the three Branas, I think I like the white Ilori best.

-2005 Domaine Etxegaraya -- Etxegaraya's basic bottling, 60% Tannat and 40% Cab Franc, mostly from younger vines. Youthful purple, fruiter than most the other wines of the night, with (to me) obvious Cab Franc leafy/vegetal/tobacco notes.

-2005 Domaine Etxegaraya Cuvée Lehengoa -- 80% Tannat from 125-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. For me, this stood head and shoulders above the rest of the wines, and a quick canvass of the fellows to my left and right confirmed that assessment. Very dark, serious, and monumentally sculpted wine of incredible depth and structure. One of my favorite wines of any kind. I've already gone through at least a case of it.

-2005 Domaine Ilarria -- 70% Tannat, 20% Cab Franc, 10% Cab Sauv. Nice wine that somehow didn't distinguish itself much from the pack. Appropriately sturdy as a companion to the cassoulet.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea -- I think this is 50% Tannat and probably the rest Cab Franc, though I am not sure. This was one of the best of the night, a very well structured red with excellent freshness and suave tannins.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea "Haitza" -- hats off to Ramon for bringing this back from France and to this offline. Arretxea's attempt at a grand vin, the Haitza is 60% Tannat, 40% Cab Sauv, and, very unusual for Irouléguy, aged in some new oak. Very dark and brooding wine, the oak treatment is obvious, making it more like the bigger wines from Madiran like Montus/Bouscassé and Berthoumieu. I think I prefer oakless (or used-oak) Irouléguy (the Lehengoa being the exemplar of that style), but the massive Tannat can wear its oak well, and with this Haitza the use of new oak to me seemed judicious and measured. I took home what remained and will check it out again tonight.

And, last but not least, Michel's supersecret dessert, er, wine? Michel cautioned us to pour lightly, good thing he did because this stuff was very strong. The nose spoke of marc or eau-de-vie or grappa etc., but after tasting and sifting through the impressions, a very strong taste of fresh pears came through. Bingo.

-Domaine Brana Poire William -- 44% abv. Brana actually produces a number of spirits, including a marc d'Irouléguy, a liqueur de framboise, liqueur de cacao, and others. This pear eau-de-vie was excellent, poignantly and deliciously pearish without undue alcohol burn. Michel picked this up on his trip to Irouléguy last year; thanks for breaking this out!

So, how about a big round of applause for Zach and his note-taking abilities (mine were severaly handicapped by the delicious cassoulet which was taking all my attention). Thanks Zach!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Breaking News: Brunello Imports Blocked, My Wines Available!

This has been a busy week already, and it's only Tuesday! But I wanted to share some incredible news, maybe not relevant to me per se as I rep only French wines, but very important to those who love Italian wines: in the wake of a wine-faking scandal in Italy that saw Brunello di Montalcino-labelled bottles being filled with everything from cheap Italian to cheaper Algerian to cheapest who-knows-what wines, the US Government announced today that it won't be releasing any shipments as of June 23rd unless the importer can certify that what's labelled on the bottle is actually in the bottle. In case you weren't aware, Brunello di Montalcino must be produced exclusively from Sangiovese grapes. If you mix anything else into it, it ain't Brunello, which means the price (and ergo the profits) drop substantially. Isn't labelling a fun game?

Here's the blurb, straight from the mouths of the TTB:

"To: Importers, Wholesalers and Others Concerned


This circular serves as notice that beginning on June 23, 2008, the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will not release shipments of Brunello di Montalcino wine unless the importer submits to CBP a statement attesting that the wine meets the requirements of the Brunello di Montalcino Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) and is acceptable for sale as such in Italy."

That's huge, and is going to cost a lot of people a lot of money. Gotta love the Italians for not moving faster to clean up their act...

Oh, and on a personal note, for those who were asking about the wine that had arrived in the US, you can find it here (with my notes too!): Wine Library Bouscade Septs Vents Syrah.

Right now I am looking like this:

Phew. That was a lot. I am pooped. OK, back to your regular scheduled blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cool Wines for a Hot Night

With the heat in NYC these past few days, it's been tough trying to think of things to cook. Who wants to make anything over a flame when it's 98F outside? So a fellow New Yorker and I decided to make some cool dishes to fight the heat. He dropped by last night despite the oppressive warmth, his hands full of grocery bags. Over the course of the next 2 hours, he proceeded to make a delicious fresh gazpacho, which we devoured as a first course. Second course was an arugula and lentil salad I'd made earlier in the day, with a mustard vinaigrette (recipe to follow). What to drink with these varied flavors? Champagne and Burgundy, of course!

As an aperitif, while my friend prepared the gazpacho, we enjoyed:
-Champagne Moutard Brut Grande Cuvee
Same notes as I've found previously, really delicious from the get-go, and improves with air. This is our new house Champer.

With the gazpacho, we popped a bubbly that our friend had brought:
-Champagne Guy Charlemagne Brut Extra
Made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, this wine was much darker and heavier than the Moutard, this showed lovely notes of baked dough and brioche and pears, with a hint of orange/citrus fruits, backed by some slight caramel. The finish was uplifted by a nice acidity, and its weight helped it survive the gazpacho.

For the arugula and lentil salad, I had decanted a young Burgundy:
-2005 Frederic Magnien Cote de Nuits Villages Coeur de Roches
I had opened a bottle last week and it was tight, tight, tight. Did I mention tight? Only the last drops were delicious. So I learned my lesson: decant this sucker for at least 2-3 hours. Seriously. Dark, funky Pinot Noir fruits filled the nose, with a streak of earthiness. The flavor profile is a bit muddled, but it's still good. Dark blue and red berries filled the attack, dropping off slightly in the mid-palate, only to come back with a vengeance on the back end. By the end of the night, 6 hours after being decanted, the wine seemed a bit alcoholic. Still, this was delicious, and what a bargain ($23 delivered).

Finally, I grabbed some home-made vanilla and fresh mint ice cream, and poured the dessert wine my buddy had brought:
-1985 Domaine Touchais Coteaux du Layon
Corked. Damn.

As promised here's the recipe I used for the warm lentil salad with arugula. It's easy to do, offers some nice earthy flavors and is perfect for a warm summer's night.

Warm Lentil Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette
1 cup lentilles du Puy picked over and rinsed
6 cups water
1 onion, chopped fine
3 bacon slices, chopped
1 garlic clove, halved
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 fresh flat-leafed parsley sprigs plus 1/2 cup leaves, chopped fine
2 carrots, diced fine (about 3/4 cup)

For vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons white-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, or to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 bunch arugula, coarse stems discarded, washed well and spun dry

Combine lentils, water, onion, bacon, garlic, thyme, and parsley sprigs in a large pot and simmer, covered, 20 minutes. Stir in carrots and simmer mixture, covered, until lentils are tender, about 10 minutes.

Transfer 2 tablespoons lentil-cooking liquid to a medium bowl and whisk in vinegar, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Add oil in a stream, whisking, and whisk dressing until emulsified.

Drain lentils well in a sieve and discard parsley sprigs and garlic. Toss the lentils with chopped parsley and vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, arrange arugula decoratively around salad.

This should serve 6 as side dish/starter or 3 as a main course.