Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BYOB Excursion 1: Mado

Zug was in town so we went to Mado, a new Wicker Park joint that does the whole "the farmers just brought us produce this morning and we'll cook it up simply" thing. I know a lot of foodies are just so over the whole concept but it's ultimately a traditional approach to food that I find extremely satisfying, if done with care and a dash of creativity.

Another reason I chose Mado is that it's BYO. I am increasingly attracted to BYO restaurants because while I am a haphazardly decent cook, I simply haven't the talent to frame certain wines the way they should be framed. And so I kick off the premiere of what should be a semi-regular series, the BOYB excursion.

Case in point: a 1997 Domaine du Closel Savennières Clos de Papillon should be reserved for a good meal, and so I brought it with appetizers in mind. At 11 years old this wine is performing very nicely, thank you very much, as you would expect of a well-made Savennières from a highly-regarded vineyard. It's amber colored and its honeyed nose tricked my friend into thinking this would be a sweet wine; and while it's anything but austere, it's not sweet. It is a full, almost rich wine with characteristics of overripe pear, honey, porcelain, and wool, and it performs beautifully on the palate, with a slight prickle of ginger and a poised, elegant finish.

Our delicious appetizers framed the wine very well. The Closel was good with our cold carrot soup, very good with the coddled farm egg, zucchini and almond dish, and absolutely beautiful with the waxy yellow and green beans that were tossed with basil and lemon. Zug loved the coddled egg best, whereas the ultra-fresh, snappy dish of beans was my favorite.

Up next was the main course, and for this we pulled out the 2006 Damiani Meritage from the Finger Lakes region of New York. I've never had a Finger Lakes wine, as they're exceedingly rare in Chicago, but I would have thought that the first one I'd try would be one of the area's vaunted rieslings. Instead, Zug brought this Meritage — 42% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, and 25% cabernet franc — all the way from his hometown of Ithaca, so it would have been churlish to have not to open it for our entrees.

You wanna know something? I like Damiani's Meritage better than 95% of the west coast red blends I've had. It's lean, polished, full of character, and most impressively, very well balanced. Its juicy, sour cherry and red berry attack resolves into cassis and graphite on the midpalate, and well-integrated oak provides a hint of spice on the finish. Its acidity is so fresh and lively that it actually reminds me of a good Barbera, and the wine ended up overshadowing my decent yet rather basic hangar steak and gorgonzola polenta. It was somewhat better with Z's better cucumber-festooned white fish fillet.

A side note about the alcohol levels here. The Meritage is but 12.9%, which certainly contributes to its old school claret feel. The Closel pushes it at 14.7%, yet it too is balanced, and not the least bit flabby or hot.

Despite my unexciting steak, I give a big thumbs up to the entire night. Really, I am still thinking about those waxy beans. Oh, and I snuck out the unfinished wines at the end of the night — both do quite nicely on day two with pasta with pesto, and both should drink well over the next five years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I Can't Tell You, and What I Can

I'm listening to a new album that's odd and noisy and so beautiful in spots that it makes me misty. I can't tell you what it is, since it's a leak from the Internets, but I promise I'll actually buy it when it is released this fall. As a former record label owner, I can be trusted... at least on this score.

What I can tell you is that I drank a few glasses of the 2006 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Gobelsburger tonight with a potato salad. It's beautiful, but I'm actually thankful it's not so beautiful that it makes me misty, lest I turn into some kind of puddle. Anyhoo, this terrific entry-level GV smells of Chinese peapod, spiced pear, yellow apple, stainless steel, and rainwater. On the palate it's lithe yet mouthfilling, as the creamy body compliments the clean acidity and slightly salty finish. And oh yes, the classic GV white pepper dances on the tongue as well. An umami character is nascent; wait a few years to bring on the mushroom notes. I should like to pair it with anything this side of a steak, although Indian food gets a special nod.

I can also tell you that I'm working on a site redesign. The wines I like are distinct, and I at least attempt to write in my own voice; so while Blogger's templates are nice, I'd like the web site to look like its own thing, too. The new look is coming shortly. The cat picture stays.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Demi-Sec Faceoff #2: Chidaine vs. Keller

It's time for another demi-sec faceoff, following the one from last October. In one corner we have François Chidaine's 2005 Les Bournais from Montlouis sur Loire, and in the other corner, we have Klaus-Peter Keller's 2006 Riesling Spätlese from the Rheinhessen. Gentlemen, put your gloves on.

François Chidaine Les Bournais from Montlouis sur Loire 2005
The Les Bournais is a young vine cuvee from Chenin Blanc grapes planted in 1999. Chidaine apparently feels that this is perhaps his best terroir in Montlouis, and the clay and limestone soils found here are more akin to Vouvray than the clay and silex typically found in Montlouis (source: Peter Liem). In fact, the name of this type of limestone is bournais, so don't forget to tell your friends. Chidaine grows all his grapes organically and yet prefers to not label his wines with this information.

The Les Bournais is a BIG wine from a big ripe vintage, and at first its astonishing 47 grams of RS dominates the palate in a single-minded attack. I may call it a demi-sec, but most people will call it sweet. It needs time, so I sampled it over four days. By the end of this period, it had turned into a deep, smoky, honeyed wine with considerable heft; it was almost crunchy, as if I were biting into honeycomb. If it's not as precise or deep as a wine made from older vines, it's anything but flabby. The finish is most impressive, long and golden, the pear, almond, hazlenut, apple, and honeydew flavors lingering beautifully.

Weingut Keller Riesling Spätlese Rheinhessen 2006
Whereas Weingut Keller was previously known for its sweeter bottlings, young Klaus-Peter Keller took over from his father in 2001 and has hence made it his mission to craft exceptional dry riesling. He's been so successful, in fact, that his Grosse Gewachs (great growths) and his cult G-Max bottling command stratospheric prices and are in such demand that mere mortals like myself may never lay eyes on them, say nothing of nose and tongue.

Fortunately, Klaus-Peter still crafts off-dry and sweet wines that are more readily available. This one, his basic spätlese, is golden, pure, and precise, with lovely texture from entry to finish. The filigreed sweetness on the attack is completely integrated with the pure, appley acidity, with a mouthfeel that's full without being heavy or viscous. One of the interesting things is that it doesn't have the minerality that his dry wines apparently do, but I didn't notice at first, as the finish is nonetheless clean, long, and fully-present. What was readily apparent to me is that it didn't have the lime twist on the finish that I often find in slate-driven Mosels, and indeed, Keller's vineyards in the Rheinhessen are of clay and limestone.

So who's the winner? The answer, my friend, is that you are, should you choose either of these beautiful wines, and doggone it, people will like you. As with all things, the question is of utility and context.

The Les Bournais is a big, big wine and in the short term I'd decant well ahead of time, then pair this with a great chevre (Humboldt Fog, anyone?). In ten years the sweetness will surely be less overt, the sugars integrated, and thus ready for richer main courses that feature cream sauces, braised meats, or carmelized vegetables. Keller's spätlese is more ethereal, more filigreed, and less sweet than this Chidaine bottling, and in the short term it is more flexible at the table; you could pair this with summery dishes, Asian cuisine, or cold meats. Of course, it will be just as long-lived as the Les Bournais, and it will also gain plenty of complexity over time.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My Little Hondarrabi

Just a quick little note here on a red Txakolina — yes, a red Txakolina! — from Gorrondona. If you've experienced a Txakolina it's probably been one of the whites, which feature Atlantic salinity and usually a prickle of CO2. And they're lovely and affordable, not unlike Muscadets.

This wine, though, is made from the red hondarrabi beltza grape and it's terrific. The grapes are not only farmed organically, but they're culled from 150 year old pre-phylloxera vines. The end result is a wild, brambly wine that delivers pure and precise dark cherry and loganberry fruit, earth and minerals, and a clean but racy acidity. Yes, I know that "racy" borders on the cliché, but there's a lot of energy here, and this wine walks that knife edge between wild and civilized, encapsulating the positives of both without any of the negatives. Lovely stuff.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Surprise, Surprise; or, Learning My Lesson Again

In the spirit of Rational Denial, a lovely new blog that Brooklynguy turned me on to, I like to experiment, to keep wines open for a few days just to see what happens. So you'd think that I wouldn't be surprised when a wine sheds its baby fat and turns from big fruit to something more complex and elegant. But it just ain't so, as it's a lesson I apparently need to learn again and again.

The 2006 Emilio Bulfon Pecòl Ròs La Santissima, a red blend from Friuli, simply didn't impress me the first two nights it was open. Sure, it showed plenty of licorice, cardamom, earth, and plum on the nose, but for all its crazy indigenous varietals — it's a blend of piculit neri, refosco, fogiarin, and cjanòrie — its big, forward, spicy fruits and lack of structure made me think of merlot, and it didn't impress me in the way of Bulfon's racy, varietal bottlings of piculit neri and fogiarin.

I skipped this on night three and on night four (tonight) I figured I'd just have to toss it. Not so fast! The Pecòl Ròs still has that big black smell but it's more refined on the palate, the acidity more overt and racy, but what's particularly nice here is the briary earthy tannins that coat the tongue. All in all it's a more interesting and balanced wine, and it's proving itself an able partner with pork pan-fried with flat parsley, garlic, and sage.

Now, would I buy the 2006 Pecòl Ròs again? No. Among other things, I still prefer Bulfon's straight-up piculit neri, which has more acidity and more distinct characteristics of cinnamon, rose petals, and earth, and which happens to be cheaper to boot. There are other, more interesting reds for less money, and judged on its own merits, this wine is good rather than very good. But the experience makes me more likely to investigate Bulfon's other wines rather than less, and it reminds me (again) that wines are alive, and spending even two days with one is — as with a person — often not enough to know it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WBW 47 - S is for a Surprising Salento

The silly theme for this month's Wine Blogging Wednesday is, um, a letter. The letter S. As in "Today's episode of Sesame Street was brought to you by..." At first I thought this was lame, a cop-out, but then grew to embrace it, as it could mean just about anything I wanted it to mean — and I am nothing if not free range (read: Animal is my hero).

I toyed with the notion of "S is for Silent S," because tonight I had Chidaine's 2005 Les Bournais from Montlouis Sur Loire, and it's a terrific demi-sec from young vines that went beautifully with my creamy, walnut-flecked pasta. But I decided to hit a twofer instead: "S is for a Surprising Salento."

Perrini Salento Rosso IGT 2004

Salento photo
Salice courtyard photo by Nuez
You've undoubtedly seen Salice Salento in your local wine shop, probably on the cheap rack. These wines are frequently value-driven reds made from Puglia's native negroamaro grape. Given that Italy's boot heel gets hot, hot, hot, you'd be right to assume that most wines from this region are large framed, easy drinking reds made for early consumption, although one twist on this formula is that Salice Salentos can also have a stemmy / herby / spicy interest to them as well.

All this said, this tank-aged, organically grown blend of negroamaro and primitivo is surely unlike any Puglian wine I've ever had, given its brownish tint, its middleweight profile, and its very fresh acidity. It's a bit disjointed at first but everything smooths out with air. The mature nose features lavender, cinnamon, anise, lemon rind, and plum, and these characteristics are joined by blueberry and cranberry on the palate. This makes for a considerably more interesting wine than any Salice Salentino I've ever had. The tannins are smooth, and the wine finishes with decent structure and length.

So why the jump in quality over your regular wine from Salento? The first obvious answer is the Perrinis' dedication to organic viticulture. But the grapes are also grown on hillsides near the sea, which subjects them to temperatures cooler than those found in much of the flat Salento peninsula. Furthermore, as explained on the Polaner Selections web site, the Perrinis built an underground cellar, which as they say was "a necessary outlay to make truly subtle wines as opposed to the often too-heavy-handed fermentations of the native red grapes." Score another one for temperature-controlled fermentation.

All in all, this was a nice surprise from Salento. And now, I return to my Le Bournais...