Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba and aged grignolino; or, The Value of Blind Tasting

Last night, the monthly tasting group, which I'm thrilled to say is back on track with a renewed sense of purpose and discipline, met up in Oakland to taste two flights of four wines. Typically, if a wine's bottle is covered and it's identity concealed, you might call it 'blind' tasting, but from now on I think I'm going to go with 'brown bag tasting,' out of respect for anyone who is partially or fully blind, so as to not associate this voluntary professional exercise, leisurely activity, or however you experience it, with the involuntary condition of lacking eye sight. So, we tasted two flights of four wines each, trying to guess what was in our glass, what commonality tied the wines together. Typically, this common thread is a region, or perhaps a grape varietal. Last night, it was both a DOC region and its grape varietal for the first flight, lachrima di morro d'alba from the Marche, on the adriatic coast of Italy, south of Emilia Romagna and east of Umbria. For the second flight, it was a broader piemonte regional theme consisting of a few wines from monferrato, a langhe chardonnay and a gattinara.

Brown bag tasting gets a bad rap. In Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch famously likens it to strip poker, or some sort of parlor trick. In the 1970's when he was starting out in the business, it was popular to compare some of the classic Bordeaux and Burgundies with some of the best California wines in competitive tastings. You know, The Judgement of Paris and stuff like that. I can understand his point of view, that you cannot understand a wine in a few minutes, or declare it better than another in a peer group just because it may have a richer, more forceful personality. Wine observed and critiqued in isolation (i.e. without food) is indeed not how it is meant to be enjoyed. It is an argument shared by detractors of brown bag tasting today.

However, I maintain that the brown bag exercise is a worthwhile one. The brown bag enables objectivity. Whatever pre-conceived notions you may have of a region, a grape varietal, a producer, or an importer, disappear and enable you to judge a wine on its own merits. Also, the format of most brown bag tastings often times enable you to judge a wine amongst its peers. By tasting similar wines in a focused way, you invariably learn more about what makes a region, producer, or vintage distinctive. Then again, the value of a brown bag tasting ultimately depends on the care with which one selects the wines, as well as the approach and observations of the participants.

There are plenty of groups that go for the tried and true, WSET inspired groupings of wines, perhaps combined with a degree of hype for certain vintages. For example, 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape, 2008 Burgundies, 2007 Napa cabernet. I have a co-worker who has participated in such tastings with his group every month for years now. And that's fine. Not for me, but that's why I'm in a group that does brown bag tasting a bit more off the beaten path: two flights of Puffeney, zinfandel from the 80's and early 90's, currently available Alsatian wines, and most recently, the lachrima flight as well as some grignolino, freisa, gattinara and 02 Coppo Chardonnay.

After we taste, we eat. Well. Last night it was lasagna, which went very nicely with a 2006 Luciano Landi "Gaviligiano" Lachrima di Morro d'Alba.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Old, really old wines tasted recently

One of the little perks of working somewhere that purchases private cellars is that - you guessed it - occasionally you have the good fortune to taste what was in those private cellars.

We'll work backwards here and start from the mid 20th century, closing out with a couple of young, spritely madeiras from the 19th.

1954 Louis Martini Mountain Zinfandel Private Reserve

Simple, developed, spicy zin that is somehow still hanging in there. Interesting in the context of it being old wine that's still palatable and for the fact that the fruit hasn't completely faded rather than for it being truly interesting wine.

1942 Louis Martini Mountain Zinfandel Private Reserve

This has attained a rancio quality that overwhelms everything else. No longer drinkable.

1956 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve

Nasty and sweaty, like used football or lacrosse pads. Not recommended. Unless used sweaty pads is what you're into in a glass of red wine.

1951 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve

Best of the group, without a doubt. This had the interplay of sweet dark fruit and savory complexity that marks the best of aged California wine.

Those were interesting, but now for the real treats of last week. I have no idea which house these madeiras are from, as the labels are so worn and there are no clues that I could pick up anywhere.

1880 Madeira

I do not even know the grape varietal(s) here, though I would suspect that it is a single varietal as any vintage Madeira I have seen, either in person or listed somewhere, comes from a single varietal. Given the viscosity, sweetness level and intense spiciness of the wine, I'd guess that this was Malmsey. Rich, sweet, intense, and hella spicy. As if it were clove infused. But there was more than enough acidity to offset the other flavors and hold the wine together. A special bottle of wine.

Historical happenings in 1880 (courtesy of Wikipedia):

- In Menlo Park, New Jersey, Thomas Edison performs the first test of his electric railway.
- The University of Southern California opens its doors to 53 students and 10 faculty
- Wabash, Indiana becomes the first electrically lit city in the world.

1842 Terrantez

I love the acidity in vintage Madeira. When combined with the intensity and depth of flavors you get in these fortified wines, what you've got is something truly unique. I would argue that good vintage Madeira makes even well respected vintage port look terribly boring and one note by comparison. But that's like, just my opinion, man. Anyway, getting back to this 1842 terrantez. It was phenomenally fresh, loaded with complex aged flavors, juicy yet cutting acidity, and the velvety texture you'd expect with the 100+ years of bottle age.

Historical notes from 1842 (courtesy of brainyhistory):

- 1st illustrated weekly magazine in U.S. publishes 1st issue, New York City
- Ether was used as an anaesthetic for 1st time by Dr. Crawford Long
- Great Britain and China sign Treaty of Nanking, ends Opium war
- Seminole War ends; Indians removed from Florida to Oklahoma

Friday, June 25, 2010

If you are in SF, cuidado!

Laureano Serres is in town....

I have to apologize for a complete and utterly lazy go of it lately. I plan on locking myself in my room, with nothing but a wine glass, a few bottles of wine, and my computer, tonight and tomorrow night, writing some new posts for next week.

Happy fin de semana.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thursday HALL & OATES

My girlfriend recently turned 30. To celebrate, last weekend we had a bunch of people over, ate carnitas tacos, hung out with lots of great folks and danced. While we had one professional DJ in the house to spin late period disco and electro, there was also our friend Morgan and me spinning dirty south hip-hop and completely random shit, respectively. The best moment of my set, next to a pretty flawless and, in yacht rock terminology, "smooth" transition from Bowie's "Golden Years" to Hall & Oates' "I can't go for that (no can do)," was definitely when I played the classic tune below. If you DJ and really want to rock a crowd, this is just one of those jams you should strongly consider throwing on. At least if you occasionally roll with the type of crowd I do. And if you do, I apologize....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Delicious Mosel Kabinett, re-visited

In the past, I've very much enjoyed the wines of Eduard Hauth-Kerpen. The one vineyard bottling that I seem to find at my store, the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, has made a best of list on this blog in years past. I've had both 1994 Spatlesen and 1996 Kabinetts, and now a 2002 Kabinett. This bottling, like the aforementioned wines from Eduard Hauth-Kerpen, strike me as very classic in style: light, spritely acid, delicate sweetness, and overall a very easy going, mellow, and understated palate presence. I'm sure that the higher acid, less noticeably ripe quality of vintages such as 1996 and 2002 have something to do with the style of this winery as I recognize it; though I am very interested to try something either younger, or perhaps from a warmer vintage to see how the wines fare. Something tells me that these delicate, classic wines would still be somewhat similar even in more robust vintages.

Oh, and a quick shout out to Thor Iverson for either snapping or sourcing the beautiful photo above, which came up on a cursory google image search for 'wehlener sonnenuhr.'

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sar-dines (HEY! And pasta please!)

In the world of home cookery, you take inspiration whenever and wherever you can get some. As much as I love to pore over cookbooks, food blogs and the like, sometimes, in fact, quite often, I just don't have the time. I want a delicious, simple meal that I can throw together relatively simply. Don't get me wrong, I do love the process of cooking and creating a multi step recipe, but these days maybe I have the urge to do so 2-3 times a month. On a good month. So what, and who, inspires my cooking? Travelling, for sure. I try to really pay attention when I eat meals in foreign countries, enjoying every mouthful, but also paying close attention to how I think a dish is being prepared, be it a meal that is casual or fancy, sit-down or stand up. My parents, in particular my mother, continue to strongly influence my cooking. They were keeping it fresh and simple, ingredients based, from as long as I can remember. In Baltimore, MD - word to muvuh! This is the easiest way to cook, and often times the most rewarding as well. Finally, the single biggest influence on my cooking, as it relates to trying new ideas, playing around with ingredients usually outside of my comfort zone, and keeping things exciting in the kitchen, would be taking cues from my favorite local restaurants.

La Ciccia is undoubtedly one of my favorite local restaurants. They cook traditional Sardinian cuisine. One of the appetizers that must be ordered whenever you go to La Ciccia is the sardines. Here's what you do: request sardines, order a bottle of Vermentino (you can choose from upwards of a dozen, I believe), and prepare to be beside yourself with happiness. For some strange, inexplicable reason, I had yet to prepare sardines at home prior to last night. Some reasons to prepare sardines yourself might include the following:

- They are cheap, $4/lb or less.
- They are plentiful and lower on the fish food chain, making them healthy as well as an ecologically sound choice for regular eating.
- You can easily master the preparation and look like you worked in the kitchen at La Ciccia.

Here's how you do it. Buy some sardines. Last night I only bought six because that was all they had. For two people, this is a good number for an appetizer, though eight would probably be better. You will need to clean the fish. If you're used to fish that's already sold as fillets, do not worry; this is easy. Remove the fin at the top and at the bottom of the fish. Cut a small incision in the belly and down to the tail fin. Do it carefully. Then scrape out the blood and guts with your finger (it's really not as repulsive as it sounds). Take a pairing knife and scrape any scales - there should not be too many as these fish must have less scales and are generally smoother to begin with than other fishes. Rinse the fish with lots of cold water. You really want these to be clean. Dry them off, then add salt and olive oil. Meanwhile, heat up a cast iron skillet or grill plan. Add the fish and cook for a few minutes per side. When they are done, transfer them to a plate and add some lemon juice, a few cloves of garlic (minced), crushed red chili peppers, some more good quality olive oil, an herb of your choice (italian parsley is typical, though last night I used oregano thyme and it worked great) and quality sea salt.

Provided your sardines are fresh, this recipe should kill. Afterwards, you can do a simple pasta and salad and you've got a nourishing meal, in relatively short order. Last night I tried a new shape, cencioni, made by Rustichella d'Abruzzo. Literally translated as rags, they are a very large handmade shape from Basilicata in southern Italy. Large meaning almost as big as my ears (which themselves are large). They are very rough on the surface and retain sauces very well. I simply made a fresh tomato sauce from yellow tomatoes, olive oil and salt, adding some ground espelette peppers and topping with grated grana padano. A bit of a culinary mash-up but it worked quite well. Even better would have been the traditional preparation of this shape, as explained on the Market Hall Foods pasta section of the website. Damn! you check that out? That is definitely how I will prepare these next time. Here's what my wimpy, non braised lamb sauce version looked like.

To close, I'd like to present to you - making a rare second appearance on this site - the Junkyard Band with a classic go-go jam.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

08 Chablis Deliciousness

After a bit of back and forth about whether to do a quick rosé post or similarly quick Chablis post, either one sure to be lacking in analysis or well formed conclusions - given that 11:53pm on a school night is not the time for such posts - I have opted for the Chablis direction. After all, many of us recognize that most rosés still suck anyway, right? Pinot noir based rosé? Usually over-priced and boring. Refreshing, food friendly rosé wines based on French grenache, for crying out loud? Not a shot. Over-sulphured, fizzy, acidic txakoli rosés whose...wait a second, I actually do like over-sulphured, acidic txakoli rosé. Well, anyhow, you get the point. Let's talk Chablis.

2008 is, by all acounts, a vintage of the quarter century type of vintage in Chablis. I had heard as much from the usual combination of critics as well as other assorted wine hawkers; however, perhaps more importantly one of my colleagues said that it could well be the best Chablis vintage he has tasted in 32 years of tasting these wines. He has bought Burgundy for a good portion of that time, so I'm inclined to take his word for it. 2007 in the Rhone? No thanks. 2008 and 2009 in Bordeaux - non, merci. 2009 everywhere that made wine in Europe? We'll see. For now, though, if you enjoy high acid, mineral whites that should drink well for a long while, you'd be wise to invest a bit in 2008 Chablis. Don't feel like you need to go grand cru or particularly fancy, here, either. Then again, you might want to step aside from the likes of the 2008 William Fevre Champs Royaux, or some of the larger scale industrial producers out there, even whose premier and grand cru vineyards are typically lackluster.

For now I've got some 2008 Domaine Anne & Arnaud Goisot Chablis for cheap; we'll see how it is several years from now but I find it quite delicious right now: lean, citric, mineral as all hell and fun. If you're a fan of lower sulphur and comparably riper wines you may find this one to be less appealing than I do, but for $13.99 it's worth a try (full disclaimer: my employer imports this wine).

Also, I recently bought some 2008 Domaine Gerard Tremblay Fourchaume 1er Cru Chablis (another disclaimer: we DI this wine as well). Much more weight, and serious stone fruit and citric flavors here. Extract is higher, acid and mineral still terrific, and this one appears to have the stuffing to age well north of a decade. Only one way to find out, though. The wine is purchased, I'll get back to you in 2025. The vineyard was originally planted in 1951, using massale selections, the only way this domaine rolls with new plantings to this day.