Monday, May 28, 2012

Bottle stock

 From what was once an under-recognized spot for choice pinot noir, Santa Barbara County, comes another truly striking rendition of that difficult grape – the Belle Glos 2010, from their Clark and Telephone vineyard. Located in the south end of the Santa Maria Valley, it was first planted in 1972 by one of the Wagners, the family more commonly associated with Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley but long devotees of pinot noir, too. The clones are said to have been brought over from Burgundy, chosen by the late Louis Martini, and the yield today is sparse if potent. 
This particular wine opens in the glass with a bang: red cherry and cinnamon, with a powerful breath of alcohol that makes a cracker and maybe sliver of hard cheese an advised accompaniment. No aperitif here, though the hints of chocolate and spice are delicate enough, and the wine maintains its considerable presence in the glass for more than an hour; it can go mano-a-mano with the likes of beef rubbed with garlic and chili.
That said, the Clark and Telephone is the most immediately approachable of what are in fact three exceptional Belle Glos pinots, the other two being the 2010 Los Alturas from the Santa Lucia highlands, and the 2010 Taylor Lane from coastal Sonoma. These are best kept for awhile, like most sizable investments. All three wines have their elaborate wax seals that announce close attention to all things viticultural.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Rhone rocks

Consider now the Rhone Valley, that riverine crease between the Massif Central and the Alps that led the Phoenicians into what became France. When the Romans arrived, good wine was already being made there. Rhone reds are big, often inky, and full of amazing nuance. The big ones go with autumn fare like wood smoke and falling leaves, but the less intense are suited to all seasons.
     In the 14th century Pope Clement V established his summer residence in the wine-producing country north of Avignon. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is now the best known Rhone village, and produces the best known - but not necessarily the best - wines from country that reminded me, when I first saw it, of the American Southwest. The vines grew from glacial deposits of round, white stones that acted as solar collectors and warmed the vines at night, helping to produce dark, intense fruit, and some of it found its way into cheap bottles fitted with plastic tops and appropriate cost.
I later tried two aged Chateauneuf-du-Papes from bottles that did not have plastic tops. Those sloping shoulders contained great, mature flavors that few wine drinkers ever experience, for Rhone wines are usually drunk far too young. These came from two top producers – Guigal, and Jaboulet’s “Les Cédres,” and their effect was riveting. Both had a deep, bricky color and released a powerful and complex bouquet, filling the mouth like exotic fruit, both still tannic but the finishes went on and on.
Quality Rhones are no longer under-appreciated, of course. Prices rose on the wines’ merits, but the best Rhones are still reasonable next to their celebrated neighbors in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Good and even lesser ones have the staying power of a Clydesdale. A Rhone wine left open for two days still hauls the taste buds around a course with more points of interest than most reds can offer when they’re freshly opened, at twice the price.
Gigondas, another appellation in the southern Rhone, produces huge wines, too, but Cotes du Rhone, the most commonplace of the southerners, remains a fine, adaptable bargain. Although it can usually be drunk after a year or so, and often immediately, it too improves with age. Cotes du Rhone Village is a slight step up. One I recommend with misgiving – since it’s one of my everyday wines and the price will go up if it gets too popular - is Cairanne, from Comte Louis de Clermont-Tonnerre, well-made and flavorful, with good body and consistency and costing only about $13.  
The northern Rhone also produces wines of unforgettable depth, notably the Cote Rotie. Two of the best I ever tasted are Guigal’s '80 La Landonne and the ’80 La Mouline, but that was a long time ago. Other northern Rhone appellations are Hermitage, and Cornas, and all these wines are intense and almost black in color. In fact, if Rhones generally have a problem, it’s brawn. The big ones should be decanted long before a meal, and served with meats or cheese of substance. Game may overwhelm some burgundies and clarets, but the Rhones resound like contrapuntal brass in the semi-arid outback.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

From Nat Geo's Intelligent Travel:

America Eats 

Posted by James Conaway

Spanish chef José Andrés, a force of nature in the culinary world (Time just named him among its annual 100 most influential people in the world) and an enduring presence in this nation’s capital, founded America Eats Tavern less than a year ago in the space formerly occupied by his popular Café Atlantico (405 8th Street, NW). He announced that America Eats would be open for only one year, an uncommon approach in the restaurant business, but apparently a sound one, considering all those people wrapped around the sidewalk waiting to get in.
The restaurant was inspired by the Works Progress Administration writers’ project of the 1930s, with fare derived from classic American recipes. It’s also linked thematically with an exhibition at the near-by National Archives, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?: The Government’s Effect on the American Diet,” with some profits from the restaurant dedicated to the Archives.
This is a genuinely unique idea for presenting food and, ironically, one that seems not to have occurred to American restaurateurs in this historically-minded city.
The food – like the descriptions and historic provenance – is thorough and imaginative, and absolutely delicious: grilled butter oysters (New York, 1825); vermicelli prepared like pudding (Philadelphia, 1802); hush puppies with homemade sorghum butter (the South, generally), shrimp étouffée (lower Mississippi delta), BBQ beef short-ribs with Hoppin’ John (Carolinas, 1847), and pecan pie (southeastern seaboard, 1700s).
Joan Miro's "Head of a Catalan Peasant." (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)
If you want to try these tasty treats and Andrés’s iterations of other classic American dishes you’ll have to do so before July 4th, when America Eats Tavern is scheduled to close, before — Presto! — opening as something else.
Meanwhile, just a skip down Pennsylvania Avenue at the National Gallery of Art, Andrés is putting his masterful mark on dishes from Catalonia to complement the current exhibit there, “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape” (through August 12). This rare gathering of the artist’s fascinating oeuvre is rooted in the sensuality and romance not of America but of Miro’s – and Andrés’ – native land, and is not to be missed. Neither are the delectable dishes on display at the gallery’s Garden Café.
James Conaway is a featured contributor on Intelligent Travel, and writes freelance for National Geographic Traveler and other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Beyond the Paris tasting

Occasionally I re-visit an established Napa estate to see what has become of it, its owners, and/or its wines (Plus Ca Change, 3/6; If It’s Not in the Vineyard…, 3/12; The Red Room, 3/23).
Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they’re unavoidable. The contents of goatskins and amphorae were no doubt compared long before bottles; the Bordelaise made wine comparisons official with their famous classification of 1855, which assigned a rank to each chateau according to the average market price and perceived quality of its wine. This theoretical pancake stack, topped by the “first growths” of Bordeaux, though long since outmoded has survived.
Fortunes were and are still made on that original hierarchy, and despite complaints from the owners of chateaux whose wine deserves to be elevated, the French have been reluctant to change things. And quasi-official competitions between the best French and California wines have had a similar effect on American fortunes, especially the one took place in 1976, the famous blind “Paris tasting” held by the Académie du Vin.
The French wine critics participating mistook some California wines for French ones, with all the attendant blather. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from Napa was chosen as the best cabernet out of a stellar lot that included two much more expensive first growths, and as a result Stag’s Leap was instantly canonized and Chateau Montelena came in first in the whites, Napa thus beating out hallowed bordeauxs and burgundies.
Many know of all this because of a silly movie – Bottle Shock – that focused on the (largely fabricated) chardonnay storyline instead of the more interesting cabernet one. The ten cabs tasted in 1976 were, in order of rank, the Stag’s Leap '73, France's Chateau  Mouton-Rothschild ’70, Château Haut-Brion '70, and Château Montrose '70; California’s Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ’71, Bordeaux’s Château Léoville Las Cases '71, and California’s Mayacamas '71, Clos du Val ’72, Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard '70, and Freemark Abbey '69.
           The defense offered by the French in trembling voices was that the wines of Bordeaux were built to last, while California cabernets were more approachable at an
early age. So the Académie du Vin - founded by the rigorous Englishman Steven Spurrier - arranged a second tasting of the same wines about a decade later, this time in New York. The judges were all American, with the exception of the English director of the Académie, and one Frenchman, the sommelier from the Ritz in Paris.
The Americans were all respected wine professionals without a noticeable California bias, but it was another slam-dunk victory for the Californians. The wines were ranked in that blind tasting as follows: Clos du Val ’72, Ridge Monte Bello '71, Montrose '70, Léoville-Las Cases ’71, Mouton '70, Stag’s Leap ’73, Heitz '70, Mayacamas '71, and Haut-Brion ’70.
This tasting seemed to answer the big question about the ability of California cabernets to age well, with some caveats: Freemark Abbey didn’t compete, and Stag’s Leap went from first to sixth place. But the 1970 vintage in Bordeaux had produced highly concentrated, often quite tannic wines that required a lot of age. I remember tasting a '70 Las Cases in the late ‘90s that was still hard as a nail, and a Leoville-Barton '70 that had begun to dry out but was still mouth-puckering.
           Barbara Ensrud, a wine writer and one of the judges, said that the bordeauxs seemed a bit harder to her, but that the differences among the top six wines were infinitesimal. "They were all very good," she added. The stand-outs, however, were Ridge, and Chateau Montrose, since both made the cut in both tastings and both improved in rank, and Napa’s Clos du Val, which had won.
This was ironic since the man responsible for its success was the Frenchman, Bernard Portet, who grew up in Bordeaux where his father was the winemaker at first-growth Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Bernard came to Napa in 1972 to manage the fledgling Clos du Val vineyards and winery, and made consistently good wines until he retired two years ago. But Portet’s vines were only five years old when the Clos du Val '72 was made, where the vines in Bordeaux were 25 to 30 years old.
Portet had a theory about aging: "It’s a staircase. In California, the nose and color change first, followed by taste. In France, aging is more streamlined." Fortunately his standards for making wine endured, the most important being balance. This is still apparent in the ‘07 reserve cabernet (with 15 per cent petit verdot and 5 per cent merlot), deeply-colored, with intense black fruit flavors and a long finish. It should be put away indefinitely.
The somewhat less expensive Clos du Val ’07 cabernet from Stags Leap district (with 6 per cent merlot) has a deeply garnet hue, complex dark fruit, and a good finish with detectable tannins. I left it standing open for an hour after first tasting it and the expansion of flavor and intensity was striking. I would put this one away for at least three years.Clos du Val’s least expensive cab ($38) is the ’09 Napa Valley, made from their vineyards in Stags Leap, Oakville and Yountville districts, drinkable sooner than its mightier siblings and also offering signature black fruit and commendably low alcohol of 13.5 percent. This is a wine with its own historic provenance, imbued with the essence of the ever-reinterpretable cabernet sauvignon.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Controlled fire

There are fragrant, colorless alcohols served from cut-glass carafes in small glasses. Whether these are called quetsche, mirabelle or framboise, they all tasted like the fruits they came from, converted into a controlled fire on your tongue that warmed you and loosened it.
                  Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Imagine Hemingway drinking eaux-de-vie in Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment in the early 1920s. His respect for the power of this "water of life” apparently didn't deter him from drinking it on sunlit afternoons, not the best idea for everyone, considering that the proof of most eau-de-vie hovers just under 100. The concentrated aroma of the distilled fruit masks a considerable punch.
But Hemingway was accustomed to knocking back a couple of hot rums of a morning, followed by a half-bottle of wine, while writing in a cafe. The drinking habits of the Lost Generation in general would make an interesting doctoral thesis. Papa and Fitzgerald once drank several bottles of Macon (chardonnay) while driving between Lyon and Paris in a convertible without a top, in a rainstorm.
Hemingway remarked on the effects this movable binge: "It had never occurred to me that sharing a few bottles of a fairly light, dry, white Macon could cause chemical changes in Scott that would turn him into a fool." Poor F. Scott was about to drawn and quartered in Papa’s memoir.
But our subject for the moment is eau-de-vie. The term has equivalents in many languages, including Gaelic, and generally denotes a distilled drink made from fruit, berries, and even grain. Strictly speaking, cognac and calvados, made from grapes and apples respectively and aged in wood containers that give them color, qualify as eau-de-vie. So do those powerful after-dinner drinks known as marc in France and grappa in Italy, made from pomace - the residue in the bottom of a wine press.
I’m focusing on the subcategory of fruit and berry eau-de-vie best served on a cold or rainy evening, preferably in front of a fire. A dollop in a liqueur glass makes an ideal dinner party finale, too, flavorful enough to triumph over the residue of food and wine and a source of inspiration in itself any time of year. Having a few eaux-de-vie to choose from heightens anticipation for what remains, in this country, an exotic taste experience.
Kirsch is probably the best-known eau-de-vie, made from cherries and stored in glass or pottery vats so the liquid remains clear. Kirsch and the various eaux-de-vie that Hemingway spoke of have traditionally been made in little farmhouse stills in the Black Forest region of Germany and in Switzerland, although variations are made throughout Europe, including in the northeast of France. There they’re called alcools blanes, and those from Alsace are the most readily available here.
The process of making eau-de-vie is simple: the mashed fruit is fermented and then distilled, usually twice, keeping the alcohol level below 50 percent (the equivalent of 100 proof) to preserve the fruit's essence. It may be difficult to believe that a clear and potent alcohol could smell like a delicate fruit or berry, but it can. Whether you can afford such olfactory extravagances is another matter. Because eaux-de-vie require large amounts of fruit to produce a relatively small amount of liquid, their prices are high - particularly for exotic potions like fraise des bois, or wild strawberry brandy.
Fortunately there are more common eaux-de-vie that are less. Another consolation is that a small bottle should last a year. The intensity of flavor, and the heat Hemingway speaks of, preclude guzzling. One of the most popular eaux-de-vie, pear, known also as poire William and Williamine in France and Switzerland, and Birngeistin Germany, made from the Bartlett pears. You’ve seen the fancy bottles of pear eau-de-vie with a whole pear inside.
Framboise is another popular eau-de-vie, made from raspberries. Wonderful on its own, it adds a distinctive note to any cooking calling for fruit brandy. Plum eau-de-vie comes in a couple of versions. Mirabelle, made from yellow plums, has a spicy, clovelike quality that is particularly appealing in cold weather. Quetsch, and pruneaux, are made from blue plums, and are mellower than mirabelle.
Another’s made from the pits of the sloe, or blackthorn, the same plum-like fruit that goes into slivovitz made in eastern Europe, which has a slightly pungent flavor and fresh intensity. Some of the most intriguing versions of eaux-de-vie are made from apricots (abricof), blueberries (myrtille), gentian flowers (gentiane), and even holly berries, a rare eau-de-vie known as baie de houx and hard to find.
What really got me into this subject was Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Joan Miro, the noted Spanish painter. It was Stein who, at least vicariously, brought Hem in contact with Miro. He bought Miro’s painting, The Farm, which accompanied the writer to Key West and Cuba before coming into the possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. If you’re interested in how, you can read the piece I wrote about the painting and its odyssey in the current issue of Washingtonian magazine, and on my blog for National Geographic’s site, Intelligent Travel, about Miro’s Catalonia: