Monday, August 31, 2009

Going on a Little Trip

I'm taking a little vacation from the blog this week - I'm traveling on the west coast for business. Just a couple of quick things to say before I go:

--I have a small article published in the Fall issue of Wine & Spirits magazine, called 48 Hours in New York City. It's basically a vehicle for aging stars Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, bringing their outrageously mismatched partnership from San Fran to fight crime in NYC. Anyway, I am obviously rather proud to have written something that appears in an important wine magazine. An I can tell, you're proud of me too - thanks.

--I tried my hand at salt-cured Bonito this weekend, using this recipe. Needless to say, my version did not look as enticing. Mine was too salty too - I'm using less salt and less curing time on my next try. The author recommends 3-4 days. I went with 8 hours and it was too much.

--I can now tell you that after drinking the top Bandol rosés this summer, Tempier's is the best in 2008, and it's not even close in the end. That wine simply has everything - fruit, texture, complexity, vibrancy and punch, but true grace. Beautiful wine, one that I want more of, quickly.

--I recently had the occasion to open a great bottle of mature red Burgundy wine, the 1995 Domaine Chandon de Briailles Corton Clos du Roi. Truly a delicious and wonderful wine. Just listen to what BrooklynLady had to say while drinking this: "Wow, this wine is making me SO happy," and then she said "Honey, I could drink this every day. Can you make that happen for me? Do we have any more of this?" I had to explain to her that although we have no more of this wine, we have other great bottles that in about 10 years might be as rewarding. And we have a few things we can open sooner that might be in the same league. She looked somewhat crestfallen. What can I tell you? Should I have lied to the poor woman?

--As much fun as it is to travel, I HATE being away from my wife and kids.

See you in about a week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wine of the Week - Selosse Champagne

I'm sorry to do this, to ask you to read about a wine that it so awfully difficult to find, and if you can find it, so terribly expensive. But this is a special wine, one that I may well never have the chance to drink again, one that has inspired much debate, a rare wine from an iconic producer. The other night Peter Liem came over for dinner, and so I had my first Selosse experience. It was pretty amazing, and I want to share a bit about it.

NV Jacques Selosse Champagne Substance, about $250, Imported by the Rare Wine Company. This is a Blanc de Blancs from the Grand Cru village of Avize. Substance is a solera wine, meaning that it is composed of wines from all vintages since the creation of the solera, which in this case was 1986. Wine is removed and new wine is added each year. Because they contain so much old wine, solera wines tend to offer a mature richness of aroma and flavor. And as Peter explained, Selosse's idea when he created the solera (and Selosse was the one to begin this practice in Champagne) was to eliminate the effect of vintage and to amplify the effect of the terroir. When the barrel contains wines dating back to 1986, the impact of the individual year is lost. Peter discusses Selosse and terroir a bit more in this post.

The bottle we drank was disgorged in October of 2008, and I think the most recent vintage in this bottle should therefore be 2004. The wine is a strikingly deep amber color. The nose is expressive and intense, full of ginger and exotic fruit. Broad and rich but finely focused, and with incredible detail on the palate, this is a complete wine. And after about 90 minutes it was truly amazing - the things that stuck out previously, the intensity, the ginger, the richness - those things had blended so seamlessly with each other by this time that none of them on its own was evident. The wine had become a real thing of beauty, the kind of wine that can ruin you. Evocative of old libraries filled with leather-bound books and half-drunk glasses of sherry, and of attractive young couples riding motorcycles, rushing past you in a fleeting glimpse of what you wish you could be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brooklyn Blind Tasting Panel #1 - Cour-Cheverny

Is there room for another blind tasting panel? I think there is, and I'm trying to organize it. I think it will be interesting to gather bloggers and other people with whom I enjoy sharing wine, taste and discuss together with the goal of being able to say something meaningful about a group of wines. Hopefully it will be of interest to you. We''ll do our best, and let's see how it goes - your comments, suggestions, and criticism will be most helpful as I continue to do these.

Our first theme is Cour-Cheverny. Cour-Chevery is a tiny area within Cheverny, itself a small AOC to the northeast of Touraine. There are about 50 hectares of the now obscure Romorantin grape planted in Cheverny, and it is this area that in 1991 was given its own AOC status. There are obviously not many growers in such a small space, and after much scouring, I could identify only five producers whose wines are available in the NYC market. Five - that's pretty manageable for an amateur blind tasting panel.

Cour-Cheverny is high-acid wine, even by Loire Valley acid freak standards. When good ripeness is achieved, the wines can show an apple-y kind of fruit that complements the intense minerality and acidity. When not ripe or not done well, these can be shrill wines that pierce the teeth and the spirit. The most famous Cour-Cheverny wine (and famous is a silly word since it is only the wine-geek who knows and drinks these wines) is François Cazin's Cuvée Renaissance, a wine made only in the best vintages when the grapes are affected by noble rot. It is a delicious and complex off-dry wine that ages beautifully. But we limited ourselves to dry wines in this tasting, so no Cuvée Renaissance (until after the tasting, anyway, when we enjoyed the excellent 2004 with a group of raw caow' milk cheeses). Four of the five wines we tasted were from the 2007 vintage, a classic year in that it presented the typical array of problemsthat growers have to content with. Not warm and easy ripening like 2005, not as bad as 2001, typical perhaps, classic.

I was joined for this tasting by three friends - Alice Feiring, Keith Levelnberg, and Michel Abood. Alice is the noted wine writer and passionate defender of natural wines who recently wrote a book entitled The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. You can follow her day to day adventures at her blog In Vino Veritas. Keith Levenberg is a securites lawyer by day and by night a prominent and very well respected participant in the New York and internet bulletin board wine scene. He writes a thought-provoking blog called The Pickyeater. Michel Abood owns Vinotas Selections, an importer of French and Spanish wines. He shares his professional and personal experiences in wine at his blog called Random Ramblings on Wine and Food.

As I mentioned, there are five Cour-Cheverny producers whose wines are available in NYC, represented by three importers who very generously donated the wines for this tasting. Thank you Louis/Dressner Selections, Savio Soares, and JD Headrick! We blind-tasted the wines and individually picked our two favorites for current drinking, along with a wine that we would want for the cellar. We also did a whole lot of discussing. So without further ado, here are the results of our Cour-Cheverny blind tasting.

In general the wines showed very well, better than I expected. it was interesting to note that some of us were reminded of Chenin Blanc when drinking these wines, in that they took on a woolly note as they aired out. Maybe it's more of a terroir thing than a grape variety thing? I think Alice and I liked the wines as a group more than Keith and Michel did, but Keith and Michel were very enthusiastic about their favorite wines. Keith declared that he would happily buy his favorite for his own cellar. Two of the five wines received almost all the votes (each received two 1st place votes and one 2nd place vote) - the 2007 Domaine des Huards, and the 2007 Domaine de Montcy. The Huards was unanimously selected as the wine we would want in the cellar for aging. The only other wine to get any votes (two 2nd place votes) was the 2006 Domaine Philippe Tessier La Porte Dorée. I was not the only one who was surprised when François Cazin's wine was unveiled, and had not shown as well as the other wines. Here are some notes on the individual wines:

2007 Domaine des Huards Cour Cheverny, $17, JD Headrick Selections. Keith and Michel really liked this wine. Keith said that it was "pure with fresh fruit and powerful minerality, with flint and gunpowder notes." Michel suggested pairing it with Marcona almonds, and Keith thought it would be great with ceviche. I liked this wine very much also, its depth of material was obvious. But I thought it was more tightly wound than the other wines, and preferred to drink other wines at that moment in the tasting, putting this one in the cellar. And I will tell you that the next day (host kept the leftovers, thank you) this wine was really stunning, working way above it's paygrade. It had real complexity, layers of fruit and minerals, and was very well balanced. This is fantastic bottle and a pretty crazy value at $17.

2007 Domaine de Montcy Cour-Cheverny, $15, Savio Soares Selections. Alice loved this wine. She said that she wasn't crazy about it at first, but that it changed a lot in the glass, and as we were discussing the wines she could barely pull her nose out, saying "there are violets in this wine, and they're killing me." I assume she meant killing in a good way. I also thought this wine was great, perfect for current drinking. Very clean, lovely and pure apple fruit, a floral depth to it, very well balanced and very drinkable, impossible not to like. Keith liked this wine too, and said it reminded him of a Chablis.

2006 Domaine Philippe Tessier La Porte Dorée, $19, Savio Soares Selections. This wine was entirely different from the others, and not just because of the vintage. It is overtly oxidative in style with an almost oily texture. Michel and I both liked it enough to vote for it, but not everyone was convinced. Michel liked the chamomile notes he got on the nose and the long finish. I liked the freshness and the mineral depth of the wine, but in the end, I'm just a sucker for this oxidative style of white wine.

2007 François Cazin Cour-Cheverny, $18, Louis/Dressner Selections. All I can say is that blind tasting is humbling, and often surprising. Cazin is definitely the leading producer in the appellation with many years of great wines under his belt. But this bottle of his wine simply wasn't as good as the above wines on this particular night. I found it to be reticent, almost mute on the nose, and not in a tight, drinking too young way. Just mute. Others said that it was short on the finish and without the aromatic pungency of the others. I thought it tasted good, but that it was a simple wine. It wasn't any better on days 2 or 3, by the way. I have another bottle that I'm eager to taste to see if this one was weird in some way. In any case, Cazin is a star, and even if his wine isn't great in this vintage, he makes great wine that is worth buying.

2007 Domaine de Moulin Cour-Cheverny Les Petits Acacias, $15, Louis/Dressner Selections. I cannot, however, be as forgiving with this wine, because even during our discussion there just wasn't a lot good to say about it. It's not bad wine, but in this company it was definitely not distinguished. People said it felt dull, unfocused. I thought it was too smokey and that the fruit was oddly tropical, something that Michel picked up on also. In any case, this one would be difficult to recommend. I don't have the experience with this producer to know whether or not this is representative of the wine, but Joe Dressner is behind it and that's good enough for me - I will look forward to tasting more from this producer.

I hope this was interesting to you in some way. We certainly had a lot of fun doing it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Simplicity = Onion Tart

In the oppressive heat and humidity of August in New York City, it is the simplest food that I crave. I can't do the amazing things that my friend Peter, for example, does in the kitchen. He is a down-to-earth guy who composts and re-uses and grows his own vegetables, but his food is not simple. Everything has yuzu, agave nectar, smoked poultry broth, and homemade bacon in it, and then gets plated with lovely little edible flowers. I would like to eat the things he makes, but I cannot/do not have the will to cook them. I have to keep things simple. But I want delicious food too - simple doesn't have to mean plain.

Here is a truly simple dish, and it is a wonderful dish whose sum is far more elegant than its parts. I'm talking about the onion tart. The ingredients are inexpensive and the tart is quite versatile - you could serve this to your foodie friends, to your 2.5 year old, or brown bag it for lunch the next day. Oh, and it lends itself very well to wine - you can go in most any direction with this.

All you need is a few onions, a pie crust, and butter. The essence of the onion tart is very simple - thinly slice 3 or 4 medium onions and cook them for 25-30 minutes in plenty of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add a bit of salt and stir every few minutes so that all of the onions get a turn touching the pan's surface. You can let the onions get all brown and caramelized if you like, but I prefer to stop about 5 minutes short of that. They will still be very sweet, but not as intense and rich. Put these onions in a pie crust that you have flattened (or if you're Peter, make your own crust), fold the edges of the crust up around the onions, and bake for about 40 minutes. That's it - the most basic of onion tarts. I like to add dried herbs to the onions as they cook. You also add things like olives, tomatoes, anchovies, lemon zest - whatever sounds good to you. This time I added Herbs de Provence to the cooking onions, and put black olives and little Juliette tomatoes atop the tart before baking.

Now, what about wine? I think it would be pretty hard to take a wrong turn here. This is simple food that will go with just about any wine. I thought about an Alsace Pinot Blanc, but that made me want to add eggs and cheese to the tart and eat it in January. It's late summer, it's hot, and I used Herbs de Provence - we went with the 2008 Château de Pibarnon Bandol Rosé, $26, Michael Skurnik Wines. This wine turned out to be absolutely excellent, as good as any Bandol rosé I've had this year, including the phenomenal 2007 Terrebrune. I have yet to drink the '08 Tempier, so the jury is still out for me. Anyway...Pibarnon's rosé is 50% each of Mourvèdre and Cinsault, and it is a beautiful deep orange, with vibrant and spicy aromas of peaches. The lavender in the herb mixture brought out something floral in the wine - this was one of those times when the wine and the food elevate each other. But it was the texture that made the wine stand out, for me. It is voluptuous and thick, almost viscous, but the fruit and mineral flavors are so clean and bright that the overall effect is one of elegance and balance. This wine has plenty of stuffing, and If I had a case, I would drink half while young put half of it in the cellar for at least 5 years before checking in.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wine of the Week - Jurassic Pinot from Philippe Bornard

I made the simplest of summer vegetable soups, mostly with my 2.5 year old daughter in mind. Home made vegetable stock with shell beans, summer squash, scallions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots. Not a whole lot else. Some crusty bread with thin slices of Comte, under the broiler for a few minutes - dinner.

You ever have days where the best thing that happens at work is when you think about the various wines you might open with dinner? It wasn't even noon when I understood that I would be opening a Jura Chardonnay or Savagnin made in the under-the-veil style. And I was excited. So who knows how and why I changed gears as I prepped vegetables for the soup. I stayed in the Jura, but went with a red wine, and although I imagine that the synergy between our dinner and veiled Savagnin or Chardonnay would have been better than it was with the wine we drank, the wine we drank was superb.

The 2005 Philippe Bornard Arbois Pupillin Pinot Noir L'Aide Mémoire, $30, Savio Soares Selections, is an entirely different Pinot Noir, if you're used to the wines of Burgundy. There is little to no earth, no funkiness at all. This wine, to me, is defined by its incredible savoury character. When a wine is this savoury, I spell savoury with a "u." It's amazing, really, the umami quotient in this wine - I bet it is equal to a clam, dried seaweed, or a dried mushroom. In fact, this wine smells like a perfect blend of sweet dark cherry fruit, granite, and the water left over when you reconstitute dried mushrooms. It is a deeply complex and fascinating nose, and entirely lovely too, lest you think that mushroom water is not a positive thing. The fruit is more prominent on the palate, and it is intense and concentrated without being the least bit clunky - the alcohol is only 12.5%. But even after several hours open, the finish is long and very savoury, umami notes dancing on a sweet cherry floor. I think this wine is just fantastic.

The thing is, I don't really know anything about this wine, or about Annie et Philippe Bornard. There's just nothing out there on the interweb. I don't typically write about producers when I know this little about them, but this wine is just too good to drink and then keep to myself. I don't know the size of the estate, how they farm or harvest, what they do in the cellar, or anything about the specific site where the grapes are grown for this wine. If anyone reading this knows something, please share in the comments (that means you too Savio, Ariel, and Mike). I can tell you this, though - if you like Jura wines you should try this one, and if you like Pinot Noir and don't know Jura wine, you should try this one. I think it would work with a wide array of food, from Sushi to raw oysters or clams to veal cooked with mushrooms and herbs to Comte cheese.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An Old School Rant

Recently I was in midtown Manhattan for a meeting. It was about 2 pm on a Thursday in August, and the week's car exhaust had built up in the humid air. I was wearing a suit. I stepped out of the heavily air conditioned office building and onto sweltering 5th Avenue, and reached into my pocket to call BrooklynLady. No cell phone! I had forgotten it. I remember thinking "How quaint, how retro. I'm going to use a public telephone to call my wife." So I stepped into one of those familiar but forgotten metal booths, picked up a payphone, and brought it to my ear.

Those of you who are New Yorkers, you probably already know how this ends. How could I have been so careless? Everyone has a cell phone today, most have black, blue, or pink berries, or iPhones. Who still uses pay phones? Wack-jobs, that's who. And without so much as glancing at the receiver, I pressed it against my ear?!? The earpiece was coated with a thick layer of what I am choosing to believe was Vaseline. My ear, my hair, the back of my hand, all quickly covered in this mystery-gunk. And I had 45 minutes on the subway before I could really clean up. My first time as "that guy" on the train who looks as if he'll explode if you so much as bump his bag.

All of the tests came back negative - I am completely fine. Emotionally bruised, but physically fine. After I stopped hating New York, I realized that it was my own fault - I forgot my cell phone and then ignored basic safety precautions when using the payphone. I realized that it is actually cell phones and all related gear that I hate. And I really do hate them. People walk down the street now, their faced buried in their phone gadgets. Kids on the subway play games on these things constantly, the incessant beeping polluting the air with noise. People seem to have forgotten how to be wherever they are, with whomever they're with. There is always a text message to send or a quick email to read, even at the dinner table.

Maybe I hated cellphones most at that moment because I realized that if we didn't have cellphones, people would still use payphones and there wouldn't be mystery gunk coating the earpieces.

Can you remember life before the cellphone? We all survived, somehow. I'm not denying that cellphones and other communication gadetry have made life better and safer for people. But when people don't have any self control, when they forget simple social etiquette, when they forget how to interact with other people, we all lose because of these gadgets. The funniest part is that blackberries and their ilk were supposed to make work easier, supposed to make us more efficient. Instead they've simply put us in the position of being on-call at all times, requiring us to respond instantly, eliminating the separation between work life and private life.

If I could, I would live without my cellphone, keep things totally old school. But that's simply not practical. I would lose business, and because everyone else now lives with the immediacy of the cellphone, I would be the one missing out. And actually, I like the way I use my cellphone. I just wish everyone were more like me. I keep it set on vibrate - that annoying ringing you hear everywhere, those personalized songs emitting from people's bags - that will never be from me.

It's hard to be old school these days. You have to go with the flow, or you get left behind. Thank goodness for wine, because I can be as old school as I like there. Keep your micro-oxidated, enzymatically enhanced, iPhone wines. Not because there is something wrong with those wines in an absolute sense - there isn't. But that stuff isn't for me. I'm sticking with the basics - climate and grapes and clean vats and know-how, I'm not falling behind anyone else by doing so. In fact, I think I'm doing fine. I'll keep my Puffeney, my Chandon de Briailles, my Coudert, and my Huet, thank you. And next time I'll remember to examine the earpiece before actually touching it.

Okay, this little rant is You may go back to your text messaging and iPhone app downloading. I'm going to to buy one of those carrying cases for my cellphone so I never forget it again, ever.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

By the Glass - Poulsard Edition

I've recently emerged from a bit of a "red wine stand-still." I've wanted to branch out some more. Not merely for the sake of branching out - I wish there was more red wine that I really like. Lately I've been exploring and enjoying the reds of Provence, a select group of Northern Rhone wines, and also the Poulsards of the Jura.

Why did it take me so long to find Poulsard? I love Burgundy and Beaujolais, and Poulsard is definitely of the same phenotype. Whatever the reason, I'm a convert, and a fervent one at that. Lately I find myself thinking of Poulsard at inappropriate times, like morning while at the playground with my daughters, for example. Is that so wrong?

I love the colors - rose petal, rusty, completely translucent, delicate and gentle. I love the aromas - red currants and blood oranges, cinnamon and other spices, leathery earth. I love the whole package - a marriage of lightness and delicacy with deep intensity of aroma and flavor, and a firm tannic structure that belies its delicate appearance. When it's good, Poulsard is completely satisfying and also totally gobless.

Only problem - you won't find Poulsard at the local Wine Superstore, you may not even find it at your favorite little shop. There are stores I know of with interesting and thoughtfully selected wines, and no Poulsard on the shelves. If you don't already drink Poulsard but you'd like to try it, you may have to look around a bit. But don't give up, it's worth it.

Here are a few Poulsards from recent times, all drunk at home with dinner (none at the playground...yet):

2007 Emmanuel Houillon Poulsard Arbois Pupillin Maison Pierre Overnoy, Louis /Dressner Selections, $32. Pierre Overnoy retired and his student Emmanuel Houillon took over. This is said to be the granddaddy of all Poulsard, but I plan on finding out for myself. Several years ago I drank the 2002 and didn't get it at all. Five vintages later, I love this wine, LOVE it. Leave it open for a while or decant it to let the CO2 work its way out. Such a complex nose with vibrant red fruit, orange peel, and spices, all riding on a wave of underbrush. The palate is fresh and pure with good fruit and acidity. It feels so good in the mouth, like a fine horsehair brush painting the palate with rich and concentrated flavors and aromas. Utterly delicious wine. My favorite pairing so far - a shell steak that was cured for a few days with rock salt and rosemary.

2005 Jacques Puffeney Poulsard Arbois "M", $26, Neal Rosenthal Selections. I drank this the other night with the Creole baked rice dish. On the first day it is rather closed, with red fruit and faint cinnamon spices on the nose and palate. Enjoyable, but closed. Big time metallic minerals also, and a rock solid wall of tannins. On day two the tannins have loosened their grip and let the floral and fruit perfume out of the cage, and the wine really blossoms. The nose is so intense, it filled every cavity in my head. The wine is perfectly structured, firm and giving at the same time, and so graceful and feminine. The fruit and acids are crunchy and interestingly textured. Beautiful now, and seems like a good candidate for the cellar.

2007 Philippe Bornard Poulsard Arbois Pupillin Point Barre, $29, Savio Soares Selections. We drank this the other night with Batch 35, a washed rind cow's milk cheese from a farm in upstate New York called Sprout's Creek. The most interesting color yet, almost more rusty than rose colored. This one also took a while to unwind, and was most beautiful about four hours later, as it was almost gone. The nose is cinnamon and spice, bright high-toned fruit, and underbrush, very pure and fresh. The palate is silky smooth with blood orange and red berry fruit, faint herbal tones, and great acidity. Just a delicious wine.

2006 Domaine Tissot Arbois Poulsard Vieille Vignes, $18, Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. This was a wine of the week a few months ago. We brought a few bottles to Rhode Island on a recent vacation, and everyone seemed to like it, even the non-Poulsard-ly inclined. This wine is a bit darker and more purple than the others, and the fruit is a bit more overt. So is the funk though, and it shows best with a solid half hour open. It is a lovely wine, with good fruit, earth, and great minerality on the finish. And it's essentially half the price of the other wines.

2007 Domaine de L'Octavin Arbois Vieilles Vignes Fiordiligi, $23, Savio Soares Selections. This is a bretty funky earthy wine. There is lovely fruit too, and the typical light body and smooth texture. But the brett is like a hot blanket in summer, and I wanted it off. Others might find it irresistible, and perhaps I didn't give it enough time to blow off. I think it's just bretty wine though. I'll check in on the next vintage and compare.

Any other Poulsards out there that you can recommend? I'll try almost anything, at this point.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wine of the Week - Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon

You already know about this producer and about this wine, the Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon #2, $14, Louis/Dressner Selections. I am not going to shed any new light on the situation. I will say this, however, and please don't start drafting your hate mail yet - I don't love Clos Roche Blanche as much as some of you do. I have much respect and I've had some great bottles, but overall, not one of my favorite producers. Nothing complicated - I just don't always love the wines. My favorite is the fantastic Touraine Sauvignon Blanc.

But I am still frustrated by this wine. I have had bottles that just blow me away, and then had bottles that are simply uninspiring. There is variation with any wine, but I find more so with Clos Roche Blanche than with most other wines. Or perhaps, it is just that when a $14 wine is as beautiful as this one, it is equally frustrating when the next bottle is nothing special.

I've had the 2008 several times now and at its best, it rivals wines from Sancerre that cost more than three times as much. Like the bottle I opened the other night when my parents, who don't care a lick about wine, were here - I wanted to open something good, but not terribly dear to me because they don't care one way or another. The wine was utterly gorgeous. Even my mother who was mesmerized by her granddaughters said "Wow, this is great wine, I don't think I've ever had anything like this before."But when I served it to some close friends a few weeks ago as part of a blind wine dinner, it was totally unremarkable. How frustrating!

When you get a good bottle, this is what you get: smokey earth and minerals, black licorice and herbs, incredibly pure citrus fruit, vibrancy and balance. As Sharon Bowman recently pointed out, this wine can be addictive. And at 13.5% alcohol, be careful. But it's not always this good, and when it's not, I find that the drop off is rather steep. I'll keep buying this wine because it's so great when it's good, and at about $14, the risk is manageable. Is it just me, or have you found there to be lots of variability here?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tomatoes Provençal (sort of)

August brings some serious goodness to our local farmer's market. Check out these sugar plums and apricots - my two and a half year old practically tore the bag out of my hand when I got them home. Actually, these might be a bit late this year because of all of the rain we've had this summer. I think sugar plums typically arrive in July.

Eat them or paint them?

As wonderful as those plums are, tomatoes are my favorite food-thing about August and September. There's been a lot of talk about tomato blight this year, about how the crop will be small and very expensive. Crossing my fingers that this will not be the case, and so far the markets seem pretty well stocked, prices seem about normal.

I got my first heirlooms of the summer this past weekend from Bill Maxwell's farm in New Jersey. These tomatoes need nothing, they're utterly delicious on their own. We chose three varieties, and I cannot remember their names - I think they are green stripe, purple velvet, and the third one escapes me. A few drops of Peter Liem's amazing olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and voila - the best thing I've cooked all year.

Keep it simple.

Everyone knows that fresh tomatoes can be finicky with wine, and vice-versa. Tannins and fresh tomatoes don't get along so well. We ate these heirlooms with a very fine bottle of white Provence wine, the 2006 Domaine Henri Milan Vin de Table Le Grand Blanc, about $30, Imported by Meilleurs Vins de Provence and Domaine Select Wine & Estates. Disclaimer - I received this wine as a sample from the generous folks at Meilleurs Vins de Provence. I also shared some friendly and informative emails with one of the owners, and viewed photographs of him and his son tasting wine in a Provence cellar. He has not yet sent me a Rolex, but I'm working on him.

Milan farms biodynamically and makes, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful wines of the region, white or red. The soils for the white wines supposedly resemble some of the Grand Cru plots of Chablis, with blue marl and limestone. Le Grand Blanc is a blend of 30% Grenache Gris, 30% Chardonnay, 20% Roussanne, 10% Muscat, and 10% Rolle (aka Vermentino). It is fermented and raised for a year in used barrique.

The nose is very fresh with pears and oxidative notes of orange peel. It is airy and broad, clean and pure, potent and lively, a very beautiful nose. Later on there is a bit of barrel toast and caramel on the nose, and that's fine in this case. The fruit is vivid and almost tropical, with a rich oily texture. This is a well balanced and complex wine with an intense nutty finish that keeps crawling up the nostrils. It went beautifully with the tomatoes - it is neither tannic nor acidic. I know that $30 might sound like a lot for a VdT from Provence, but this is one of those amazing-wines-that-terrify-the-INAO-and-so-is-denied-appellation-status wines, and it is worth every penny.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Favorite August Recipe

By nature I am a non-recipe cook. I use cookbooks and recipes only when I need specific information or a certain technique. One of the things I love about cooking is experimentation, the freedom to be creative. But there is one recipe that I follow faithfully at around this time every summer: Chicken Purloo. I found it in the NY Times when I was looking for okra ideas. Although it is almost absurdly involved, it's worth it.

Mini eggplant arrive at my farmer's market in August.

Since this is essentially the only recipe I follow, I get kind of anal with it, prepping carefully and laying everything out in a nice mise-en-place.
Carefully arranged diced vegetables, with leather-bound copy of Freud's The Ego and the Id.

Purloo is a New Orleans/African style baked rice dish. There are layers of vegetables, rice, and chicken that cook together in a big pot. You begin by browning chicken pieces - I used to cut up a whole chicken but I found that the white meat parts don't respond well to this kind of cooking, so now I go with thighs and legs. The foundation of the dish is something that is apparently very common in New Orleans cooking - a dice of green pepper, celery, and onion. Better to pronounce it "on-yown," like Justin Wilson used to. This, along with eggplant, a bay leaf, some dried thyme and crushed chili flakes, becomes the first layer in a large pot.
First layer of cooked vegetables. Already the house smells great.

Then comes a layer of rice, toasted in oil to minimize sticking when the dish is baked. After that comes a layer of okra and smoked ham cooked with tomatoes and a bit of wine. I use canned San Marzano tomatoes because they are the greatest sauce tomato that I know of. Why don't I use fresh tomatoes? I 'm following a recipe here...
Tasso (smoked ham) and tomatoes provide flavor and aroma, okra acts as a thickener.

Lastly, the browned chicken and some stock. Cover the pot and into the oven for a little over an hour. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so, take out the chicken so you can stir the real bounty, the rice and all of the vegetables.
Moist, tender chicken and highly perfumed rice. Need I say more?

My wife hates when I make this dish because it heats up the house on an already hot August day. But she does love eating Purloo. I suggest doubling the recipe - it keeps well in the fridge and packs great lunches.And now, let's get down to the real point of this post, the wine. I've tried several wines over the years with Chicken Purloo, all them perfectly fine. But this year I hit on a truly excellent companion for this dish, by my tastes anyway. I'm going to tell you what it is, but before I do that (in the comment section in a day or so), let me ask you this: what would you drink with this dish?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wine of the Week - López de Heredia Viña Cubillo

What do you think of when you think of López de Heredia, the great master of Rioja? I think of very old and very beautiful wines, Reservas and Gran Reservas that are first released to the retail market when they are 10-20 years old. Perhaps this is why it took me so long to try their entry-level red wine, Viña Cubillo. But try it I did about 6 months ago, and I feel like a dope. It's easy to focus only on a producer's best wines. But I shouldn't have overlooked Viña Cubillo. It is a great wine in its own right, at about $25. Think of Cubillo the way you might think of a Michel Lafarge or a Leroy Bourgogne.

Cubillo is technically a Crianza, meaning that it must age for at least 2 years, at least 6 months of that time must be in oak. López de Heredia, as they do with all of their wines, ages Cubillo longer than is required - about 3 years in oak and then another few years in the bottle. And Cubillo, like all López de Heredia wines, is released only when they think it is ready for drinking. The blend is always the same: 65% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacho (Grenache), and 5% each of Carignan and something called Mazuelo.

2002 López de Heredia Rioja Crianza Viña Cubillo, $25, Polaner Selections. BrooklynLady thought this was a Burgundy wine when she first smelled and tasted. I completely understand that assessment - the wine a lovely mingling of bright red fruit and earth. The nose really soars, fragrant and full of energy. Vibrant and juicy on the palate, very intense and fruit forward but with a compact and lean frame. The current vintage is the 2003, and I think that another year plus of bottle age has been great for the 2002. With just a little air time, the aromas are still fruity, but become very stately and mature, a woven basket of fruit on a fine mahogany dining table. We drank this wine with a simple but wholly satisfying meal - cauliflower cooked slowly with pimentón and garlic, and a scallion omelet. The pimentón and the wine recognized each other immediately from their childhood days, and wasted no time reconnecting.

The moral of this story is simple: you do not have to shell out the $75 plus to experience the joys of López de Heredia. Not that you shouldn't - many people say that a López de Heredia Gran Reserva represents one of the very best values in red wine. But you can spend about $25 on Viña Cubillo and still bask in Rioja glory. By the way, the steady-handed David McDuff's wrote about this same wine only a few weeks ago. Check out his take on it here.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Provence - the Best $10 Red Wines?

I think that the sweet spot for red wine these days is in the $20 - $30 range (in NYC retail prices, anyway) There are all sorts of beautiful wines in that price range. There are excellent wines at the $15-$20 mark also, but they are harder to come by. Great $10 reds...not so easy, in my book. But I found two of them recently, and they're both from Provence. Is Provence quietly putting out the best $10 red wines?

Provence is such a misunderstood wine region. People seem to think of it as the armpit of French wine regions. Why does it get so little respect among wine lovers? Bandol is well known as the home of some of the world's greatest rosé wines. But it is also, and perhaps more quietly, the home of the unique Mourvèdre-based red wines that offer a stunning blend of silky texture with raw, tannic, and animale-infused fruit. These red wines age beautifully, they go great with a wide array of foods, and the top examples, with only one or two exceptions, will not run you more than $50.

From my rather limited experience, quality does tend to take a noticeable step down outside of Bandol, and perhaps this is the reason that Provence as a region does not get a lot of respect. There are, of course, great producers making great wines from other areas in Provence, and their entry-level bottles can offer truly fantastic value. These wines are not as easy to find as some other $10 reds, but they are of such high quality that they are worth seeking out and buying by the case. These are big Provence red wines, full of meaty fruit and lavender, and they are perfect with summer grilling. They're perfect with winter stews too, but why wait until winter? Here are two such wines:

2007 Commanderie de Peyrassol La Croix Vin de Pays de Méditerraneé, $11, Rosenthal Imports. I love this wine! An approximately equal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from the great producer in Var in the Côtes de Provence. A reasonable 13.5% alcohol. It's all funk at first but that blows off quickly, and then the nose is rich and dense with dark tarry fruit. With an hour open the Syrah blossoms and the nose shows a distinct animale side, full of pheromones. The palate is lively and balanced even though the fruit is rich and dense, and the finish is fragrant with dark fruit, lavender, and tar. An absolutely lovely wine that works well above its pay-grade.

2006 Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen Vin de Pays du Mont Caume, $10, Moonlight Wines Imports. Gaussen is an old-school producer in Bandol and this is his "baby Bandol." Red wine must contain a minimum of 50% Mourvèdre to be labeled Bandol, and this wine has about 35% Mourvèdre (the blend changes with each vintage and really, it's a mystery). There is about 35% Grenache, some Syrah, probably some Cabernet Sauvignon, and perhaps some Cinsault. This wine really improves with a bit of air - I recommend opening it a half hour or so before serving. Then the nose shows youthful and fresh strawberry fruit, some cocoa, and a bit of alcohol (13% - even less than the Peyrassol) that integrates as the wine aerates further. The palate is well balanced, with good acidity and a gamy note that infuses the fruit - really delicious and such an interesting and complex wine at this price. This is big wine, very muscular, but with a gentle side. Like a longshoreman who plays the violin.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cloth-Bound Cheddar and Huet Vouvray

Edward Behr wrote about cloth-bound Vermont Cheddar cheese in issue number 75 of The Art of Eating, his outstanding quarterly journal on food and wine. I've been wanting to try this cheese since reading the article. Good cheddar - forget the blocky orange food-product that passes for cheddar in supermarkets, good cheddar is world class cheese. And Behr says that this particular cheddar, Cabot Creamery's Vermont Cloth-Bound Cheddar is "the world's best cheddar." Hard to be more definitive than that. Edward Behr does not use that kind of language often. More on this cheese, all quotes are from the Edward Behr article:

Very little is made --"Cabot makes just 50 wheels of the cloth-bound cheddar every two months..."

Almost no one ages cheddar in cloth anymore, but it makes the finest cheddars --"The best English Cheddar is aged merely in cloth, the same cloth that lines the molds and prevents loss of curd during pressing. This traditional 'bandage,' left in place, keeps the new cheese from sagging outward and provides a barrier against flies, once an important consideration."

It requires skill in the cheese cellar and it is time consuming and expensive -- "For the cheese producer, the great advantage to vacuum-sealing in plastic is that it eliminates all the turning, rubbing, and brushing of traditional aging."

Cloth-bound cheddar loses water to evaporation, about 12% of its weight. The concentration, the breathability of the cloth, and the surface molds on the cheese produce complex flavors -- "We made the same cheese in a vacuum-seal..., and compared the two. You're just not getting the same intensity of flavor."

The cloth is still visible at the corner of the cheese. The sides are over-run with mold.

It is not easy to find this cheese. 25 wheels per month are distributed to specialty shops around the country. Imagine my surprise when I saw it at my food coop. I asked to make sure, and it is indeed the cheese I hoped for.

Is there a classic wine pairing for Cheddar cheese? Behr, strangely, doesn't offer any advice in the article. My gut instinct was Oloroso Sherry or Port, something fortified. I checked around the Internet (information super-highway, for those who are unfamiliar) and found nothing definitive. I was on my own, and with no Oloroso or Port in the house. I honestly could not think of a red wine that I wanted to drink with this cheese. I decided on an off-dry white when I read this in the Behr article:
This cheese's outstanding appeal, apparent in some wheels more than others is a powerful caramel sweetness, to the point that it overtakes other flavors...Where does so much caramel come from...a special starter culture: 90% of the flavor of a piece of cheese comes from the milk, unless you've added something to change the flavor, which in this case we have.
And let me use that quote as a springboard - I did not like this cheese. And it wasn't a borderline, on the fence situation. Plain and simple - I didn't like it. I didn't like the caramel flavor - it didn't taste like cheddar. I know, after all that build-up! Edward Behr is a master of the edible and potable, but I disagree on this one point. It wasn't just me, either. My friend who tasted it was not impressed, and BrooklynLady tried it on another evening with no fanfare whatsoever, made a face and said "This doesn't taste like cheese." And she's right, it doesn't. It tastes like caramel and weird bitter vegetables masquerading as cheese. Why did they have to add the fancy starter to alter the milk's flavor? What would this have tasted like with a neutral starter? Did I get a chunk from a poor wheel?

Anyway...the 2002 Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec, about $32 on release, Robert Chadderdon Selections, was so awesome that the cheese ceased to matter. I chose it because I thought it would have the acidity to stand up to a rich cheddar, and also might compliment the sweet flavors of the cheese. Domaine Huet is, with Philippe Foreau, the top of the top in Vouvray, and this wine was a great example of why this is true. Although it clearly will live forever, it is in a beautiful place right now, full of rich aromas and flavors, and cracking acidity. The nose is the essence of Vouvray, with beautiful orchard fruit and a woolly, waxy undertone. After about an hour there are clear chamomile notes too. This is a powerful wine that crackles with energy in the mouth, but it is also graceful and elegant, very well balanced. It's as close to a perfect glass as I've had from this part of the world, and my attempts to describe it just seem silly compared to the experience of smelling and drinking it.

What is the classic wine to pair with cheddar, anyway? Was I right - Oloroso?