Sunday, April 27, 2008

Choosing the Wine First (Sometimes)

Via Rockss & Fruit, it seems that a new restaurant in Paris has you select the wine, then they select the food. Sort of a Memento approach to food-wine pairings. Nice.

I confess that, as a geek, I often do this on my own. I agree with those who say that pairings need not be fussy — drink and eat what you like — but if something on the wine list excites or interests me, I might plan my meal around it, or at least ensure the food won't kill the wine. This also has the side benefit of acting as a tiebreaker when two or more dishes look equally fetching.

Of course, going Memento rarely works if you're splitting a bottle with a non-geek. Most of my friends don't find wine intimidating per se, but plop 'em into a restaurant and that's when they start shifting in their seat, if they've gotten the message that there are "right" and "wrong" pairings to be made. That's when I most enjoy playing sommelier, when I can tell people that their taste is paramount, expert pairings be damned. So I first ask my dinner companion what s/he wants, and as my taste is catholic, I can work with what they like.

And then there are those times you just have to fly blind. Last week my friend Alex and I went to Posada Margherita, an Italian restaurant on the beach at Tulum, but as he tolerates wine more than he likes it, I had to choose something that would both go with our seafood-oriented dishes and not be too strong. I overrode the waiter's recommendation of an Argentinean Chardonnay — I feared oakiness — and opted instead for an Italian Pinot Grigio, even if, and actually because, I suspected that it would be bland and neutral and therefore tolerable to each of us. I don't remember the producer, but it was actually pretty decent, with a bit of that spice that is more typical of an Oregon Pinot Gris. Both of our meals were slightly overcooked, but at least the wine was not.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Coming Home to a Dry Riesling

After a 6+ hour plane delay — thank you, O'Hare International — I got home from Mexico last night at 2:00 in the morning. I can never fall straight into bed after a long day so I uncorked the one dry Riesling I have, the 2006 Schmitges Grey Slate Dry Riesling from the Mosel, and sipped a glass as I was unpacking. The wine is unmistakably German thanks to its obviously-advertised gray slate qualities. It's pale and has a honeyed apple nose like a classic Kabinett and actually has a (very) slight impression of sweetness on the palate but at 13% abv it is dry, and it finishes with a nice twist of lime and tangerine. It sits nicely atop the midpalate and it would probably be great with the delicious cold poblano pepper soup my friend Juliet ate (I had a spoonful) at Los Danzantes, a slow food restaurant in Mexico City's Coyoacán neighborhood.

A coincidence, then, to log in to the internets today and find Eric Asimov's recent article on dry Riesling.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A View of BSG from Tulbaugh Mountain

The fourth season of Battlestar Galactica premiered last night so naturally I packed up some buttery, aged goat cheese, the 2004 Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Syrah Mourvèdre, and padded over to Shawn and Kyle's.

I was glad to get into the wine before the show started. Tulbagh Mountain's Syrah Mourvèdre — 85% of the former, 15% of the latter — is certified organic and whereas many South African wines have that burnt-rubber aspect, this is a big, smoky, spicy wine that has tons of depth and grace. Blackberries and blueberries both, some meaty aromas, lots of ground black pepper, more acidity than I'd expected, and flint for days. And man, was it good with that aged goat cheese. Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards show that even with very young (5 years old) vines, impeccable farming and winemaking (no yeast innoculations, very low 25ppm sulfur) can yield a really, really good wine. It's an expensive wine, but as far as I'm concerned, it was $36 very well spent.

It was a big and nimble wine for a big and nimble episode. The opening battle sequence was probably the most dizzying and impactful I've ever seen in SF/fantasy; that the show's creators could sow such chaos without losing the viewer's understanding of events is stunning. They artfully blended New and Old Testament allegories into Gaius Balthar's arc. We all screamed when Tigh raised his gun, we murmured in astonishment as the Cylon Raider scanned Sam, and if I was slightly doubtful of Starbuck's specific act at the end of the episode, it ably demonstrated that she is different now, possessed and obsessed. Who is the last Cylon? Given her reaction when arriving at the Ionian nebula I voted for President Roslin, but Graeme pointed out that she has the blood of a half-Cylon coursing through her veins, which perhaps accounts for it. I will be forced to miss the next two episodes, as I'm taking a trip to Mexico, but I will catch up with it very shortly after returning.

BSG - Laura Roslin, Cylon?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

For WBW #44, French Cabernet Franc

Kudos to Gary Vaynerchuk for selecting French Cabernet Franc for Wine Blogging Wednesday #44. I say kudos since these wines can be tinny to many (taste) buds and it's my hope that these quintessential bistro wines earn more of the respect they deserve.

France's Loire Valley is known more for its whites — Vouvray, Sancerre, et al — than for its reds, and their white grapes thrive in the chalky tuffeaux soils that characterize this region. But in some places the soils are so limey they promote chlorosis, so it becomes desirable to grow red grapes such as... Cabernet Franc. And these red wines are, if known at all, known for their freshness, their acidity, and their frequent vegetal expressions; hence their apparent tinniness to many palates.

Myself, I like Loire Cabernet Francs as a rule. The flip side of that rule is that I can find them more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging. The interplay of green olive, tobacco, and cherry is undeniably fascinating, but not always lovable. Yet as I have fallen madly in love with a Loire red or two, I seek others to fall for. For this event I tasted two — one from Saumur, one from Saumur Champigny — and opened my heart.

Thierry Germain Saumur Champigny 2005
Thierry Germain Saumur Champigny 2005
Germain is the well-regarded owner of Domaine Roches Neuves but this is a negoce bottling, made "for" Theirry Germain Sélection (49). This wine is not as tobaccoey (is that a word?) as Germain's Roches Neuves bottling but is likewise an extracted, concentrated, but still terroir-specific Saumur Champigny. The black cherry is both thick and slightly tart, the acidity is in your face, and there's a dark mineral undertow that casts an almost sinister shade behind the bright, happy fruit. I imagine this would be terrific with almost anything this side of a shellfish. In short, it justifies itself as a good bistro wine, particularly at $16.

Domaine de Château Gaillard Saumur 2004
This is a phenomenal, ageworthy wine. Now, the Saumur appellation is less esteemed than its neighbors: supposedly meaner than Saumur Champigny, less structured than Bourgueil, and less refined than Chinon, which The World Atlas of Wine says "makes the silkiest, most tender wine of the [middle Loire] district." Yet this wine encapsulates all that is good about those regions: it's refreshing, structured, and refined.

The nose here is totally intriguing. It's softly meaty, something between cold flank steak and blood sausage, accompanied by sweet green herbs such as tarragon. Likewise, it's softer and more herb-sweet in the mouth than your typical sharp-cherry-and-tobacco Loire Cab Franc; and yet it also displays that typicity as well. With air, the tannins start lashing the tongue. I've never had a Loire red quite like it!

On day two this becomes a bit more typically Loire-ish — the meaty aromas have faded, chalky sweet cherry-n-tobacco aromas take the fore, the tannins have melted a bit without sacrificing structure — but it's still elegant and delicious. The minerality is a touch salty, the ripe tannins hint at sweetness, the acidity is cut like a swimmer's body.

Why is this wine so balanced? Maybe it's because of Mattieu Bouchet's Demeter-certified biodynamic farming. Maybe it's because many of the vines are over 80 years old. Maybe it's because the wine sees no new oak. All three and more, I'd wager; and I'd certainly wager the $17 I paid for this. Absurd.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Another Renaissance, and Another

A recent, small flood of Renaissance Vineyards wine has compelled me to open two floodgates, lest the dam burst.

First up, a short and easy note about the 2004 Renaissance Syrah, which I brought to my friend Paul's dinner party, at which he made a bacon-flecked quiche. This is a relatively early, easy drinker compared to the 2002. Its acid core is less mighty, its essence slightly less profound, but it's still nothing less than terrific. It features roll-your-eyes-back-in-your head aromas of meat and spice and all the dark, lively fruit you could hope for. And it's pure, motherscratcher, thanks to the clear Sierra skies, the thin granite/diorite soils, and the organic viticulture. Now, I didn't spend as much time with my wine as I might have, as the dinner party was a lively ricochet of conversation, but I noticed it, secretly and otherwise. Yes, I noticed.

The 2000 Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon, which I drank at home over the course of three days, is one fascinating time trip. The grape is typically not my thing and I wasn't bowled over by this wine, but it is most definitely alive. The first day, it's a massive, impenetrable wall of black and blue fruits, a hint of espresso, and tannins. Although it was obviously not overextracted, overripe, or overoaked, I could only taste youth and climate.

It's shocking to me that a 2000 California cab can taste so young and primary in 2008, but that's part of the story here.

This was a different animal on day two. Hello, red fruits! The nose was dusty dark cherry as if it were Sangiovese in drag. I was not expecting this. The robust acidity was delivered with well-structured red fruits of pomegranate, cranberry, and cherry, and if the finish was still a bit short, it had a nice, high presence at the midpalate, and it went nicely with my Middle Eastern food.

On the third and final day, secondary characteristics of leather and spice box emerged. The cherry flavors flagged slightly yet maintained some refreshing acidity, while the tannins likewise softened without losing all sense of structure. Time to break out a brisket.

Renaissance claims that due to their low yields (1-1.5 tons per acre on average), their production costs are anywhere from 5-6 times the Napa/Sonoma averages. If Napa averages 4-5 tons per acre, the math isn't quite there, but no matter: the drinking satisfaction is exponentially higher; and yet this Cab cost just $30, a bargain compared to many a slop pail sloshed out in Napa.