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Sunday Suds: Birra Baladin "Solera"

Date: Sun, May 23, 2010 Wine Tasting

No, I didn't take a side trip to Champagne while visiting Piedmont over the last ten days. So no, that's not a sample of wine drawn from the solera of Anselme Selosse you see in the picture at right. What it is (or was...), though, is something equally obscure and fascinating.

What it is was just one of many highlights of a side visit I did take while in Piedmont, in the company of a couple of friends, to visit Birra Baladin in Piozzo. Yes, it was beer, a beer unlike any I'd tried before.

Baladin founder and brewmaster Teo Musso started his solera "experiment" (his word, not just mine) in 1996, when he intentionally left a batch of his then fledgling flagship brew, Super Baladin, in a loosely closed cask. Three years later, he bottled that beer after it had undergone a transformation usually associated with brown spirits rather than beer, mellowing in flavor and losing a good deal of its original alcohol via evaporation. That slow, slight oxidation took the beer's original 8.5% alcohol down to a whopping two percent.

Eleven years later, Teo opened a bottle to share with us. Was it mindblowingly complex? No. But it was amazingly fresh, delicate and, though oxidative in style, not at all oxidized in taste. It showed a kind of freshness akin to old Madeira, along with aromas of sandalwood and subtle dried fruits and spices.

I hope/plan to share more complete details of our visit with Teo at Baladin in the weeks to come. This was just too geeky not to break out now.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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The Big Blind is Over

Date: Sun, May 23, 2010 Wine Tasting

Ah, the pleasures and pains of blind tasting. I can still feel them.

I've actually returned to home turf now, but I originally started this posting three days ago, mid-way through the fourth and final day of Nebbiolo Prima. The last of the morning blind tasting sessions had just ended and I got a good start on putting the following thoughts in place; however, a lack of spare time and even greater lack of consistent Internet access made it impossible for me to finish until now. In any event, there's no mistaking it: the practice of tasting 75-85 Nebbiolo-based wines per/day, whether from Roero, Barbaresco or Barolo, is painful. Literally painful. I think I lost about half of my gums over the course of the four days of Nebbiolo Prima. Probably a meaningful percentage of my tooth enamel, too.

Blind tasting in such a large, intense scope is entirely different from sitting down with a few friends and a few wines and really getting to know them. It's possible to get a big picture take on a vintage and on the differences and consistencies (or lack thereof) from village to village. Trying to really understand any one, much less each, wine, though, really is impossible. It astounds me that some people actually were assigning points on a 100-point scale to these wines. Impossible. Points aside, the best I could do was try to give an honest and personally meaningful reaction to each wine I tasted, to jot down a few notes on each, and to keep a short list of the handful of wines that most interested or inspired me on each day.

One of the positive outcomes of an important albeit mostly complicated, painful and unpredictable format like this is the possibility of discovering new wines. Wines that you or I may have otherwise not considered or even come across. Such was the case on days three and four of the event, when the wines I'd selected as most complete and personally compelling both came from producers with which I had previously been unfamiliar. The 2006 Barolo "Rocche" from Monchiero and 2006 Barolo "Serralunga" from Palladino were both fantastic wines — balanced and elegant, drinkable yet ageworthy, and expressive of both place and character. Does this mean that I can now wholeheartedly endorse the wines of these two producers? No, but it certainly means that I'll be on the lookout for these and any other wines they both produce, for further investigation and with the hope of similar results.

One of the true pleasures of such a format is that it can also provide an occasional reassurance that you're not fooling yourself into thinking you like something (as opposed to actually liking it). Though I can't say that I identified the 2006 Barolo "Cerretta" of Sergio Germano blind, I can say that it was on my short list of favorite wines from our final day of tasting (which was devoted entirely to the Baroli of Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba). It's a wine I've enjoyed year in and out for the last decade, and my reaction to it on the day was a pleasing reassurance that a true wine lover never tastes entirely in the blind.

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Revisiting the Men of Monforte

Date: Wed, May 19, 2010 Wine Tasting

When last I visited the cellars of Elio and Gianluca Grasso in Monforte, they had just begun an immense, elaborate engineering and architectural project. Their plan: to excavate a tunnel deep below their estate on the Gavarini hillside to provide ample space for barrel storage and, thereby, to open up space in their winery for freer, easier movement in the vinification stages of their wine producing regimen.

Four years later, the barrel chais -- pehaps chasm would be a better word -- is complete. And it's magnificent. It's more than just eye candy, though. When there's more time to write (meaning, when I get back to the US), I'll fill you in on all the details and share some more photos of my visit with the Grasso family.

That's all for now.... I'm off to the third day of Nebbiolo Prima. A blind tasting of 75 Baroli from the communes of La Morra, Castiglione Falletto and Verduno. And that's just the morning session.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Unplugged in Serralunga

Date: Sun, May 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

A Room With a View.

I've been in Piemonte since Thursday afternoon, staying in a fantastic little family run agriturismo on the Cerretta hill in Serralunga d'Alba (more on that later). No Internet access, no TV... totally unplugged. It's been beautiful in spite of a good deal of rain (and some hail in Serralunga and La Morra on Saturday), a perfect way to get away from the Interwebs and really focus on visiting some wineries and friends.

I'm now in Alba -- quite the change, with horns and car stereos blasting in the background -- for Nebbiolo Prima. I'll do my best to file quick highlights from each day's tastings, but the full reports will have to wait for my return. After all, I didn't come to Italy to sit in front of my laptop.

A più tardi....

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Champers and Choco at Éclat

Date: Tue, May 11, 2010 Wine Tasting

Yes indeed, we're at it again. On Friday, May 28, 2010, I'll be teaming up with Master Chocolatier Christopher Curtin of Éclat Chocolate to espouse the possibilities and pleasures of pairing fine chocolates with wines that sparkle.

Honestly, I've long been a firm believer that chocolate and wine are not a match made in heaven. But Sir Curtin's chocolates are uncommonly savory. And I'm always up for a challenge, especially when it comes to difficult food and wine pairings.

Here's a sneak peak at what I'll most likely be pouring:

  • Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani, Bele Casel NV (always a great way to start)

  • "Cravantine," Domaine Fabrice Gasnier NV (a rosé sparkler produced from Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley town of Chinon)

  • Champagne Brut Réserve, Béreche et Fils NV (yes, only one actual Champagne, but it's wicked good)

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro "Rive dei Ciliegi," Francesco Vezzelli 2009 (dry, fizzy red from Emilia-Romagna)

  • Moscato d'Asti, GD Vajra 2009 (I'll have just returned from Piemonte, all set to regale you with tales of the trip)
Our chocolate and bubbly mash-up will be set in Chris' shop, Éclat Chocolate, in West Chester, PA, where the storefront by day becomes a tasting room by night. Cost for the event is $50 per/person, all inclusive, and there will be two seatings: from 6:30 to 8:00 PM and from 8:30 to 10:00 PM.

Please call Éclat at 610-692-5206 for reservations or further information. Cheers!

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Reliably Odd, Oddly Reliable

Date: Mon, May 10, 2010 Wine Tasting

Those of you, fair readers, who are based in the Philadelphia area are very likely growing tired of my bemoaning the lack of exciting wine lists in our fraternal city. Believe me when I say that if more restaurants would pour something enticing, I'd go and drink it. When Tria was featuring Jacques Puffeney's Poulsard "M" on their list last winter, I probably helped them through the better part of half their inventory. The fact is, though, I continue to struggle to find a restaurant that consistently offers a list with any depth of options I really want to drink, as opposed to selections for which I'll settle in a pinch. It's one of the reasons that I'm so glad – so, so glad – that Philly has developed such a vibrant BYOB dining scene.

BYOBs don't always fit the bill, though. Even I don't always like to hoof it around town with a gunny sack full of bottles of wine slung over my shoulder. And I hate to pass up the possibility of discovering great food just because I can't bring my own bottle. Add to that the spontaneity of simply being able to walk into a place without any advance preparations. You get the picture. So, once in a while I do end up settling.

Cirò Rosso Classico, Librandi 2007
$40 on the wine list at Amis. ?% alcohol (didn't pay attention). Cork. Importer: Leonardo Locascio Selections, Winebow, New York, NY.
Luckily, Gaglioppo is one of those vines that's so intrinsically characterful that it manages to maintain its voice even in relatively innoccuous versions. (Is it the Pineau d'Aunis of Southern Italy?) And Librandi is one of those commercial-leaning wineries that manages to turn out wines that are still consistently characterful enough to provide real interest in the glass.

Librandi's expression of Cirò Classico may not hold the same geek appeal of the more artisanal version from the confoundingly similarly named winery, Linardi (brown wine, anyone?), but it still captures the personality of its autochthonously Calabrian main ingredient. When first opened, actually, it was alarmingly sweaty. But that nervous smell blew off once the wine had a chance to relax, revealing Cirò's typically zesty, black olive and spicy earth scented fruit. Combined with its lively texture, medium acidity, light-to-medium body and fine, raspy tannins, it turned out to be a pretty versatile match with everything my friend Joseph and I ordered at Amis, from a simple plate of bucatini alla “matriciana” to some bolder explorations through the fifth quarter.

The food was good. The company, too. The wine was perfectly satisfactory. As for shelling out $40 for a bottle that retails for about $12, that's just another all too common condition we suffer through here in the Commonopoly of Pennsylvania.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Sunday Suds: New Glarus Berliner Weiss

Date: Sun, May 9, 2010 Wine Tasting

No wonder this struck me as so wine-y when I stuck my nose in my glass.... I didn't know it at the time but I'm now reading on the New Glarus Brewing Company website that their "Unplugged" Berliner Weiss, based on a mash of Wisconsin White Wheat, was indeed fermented with both Riesling and Pinot Gris grapes included in the barrel. The damn beer reminded me of something I'd had in my wine glass before. Actually, a cross between a couple of things. Namely, Thierry Puzelat Romorantin and Movia Lunar, with all the citrusy, zesty, floral and herbal intensity of the two, but minus the mineral depth of the former and the slightly oxidative character of them both. This was all about freshness and savor. I'm not sure it's exactly a typical example of the berliner weisse style but in this case I really didn't care. I was so tasty that, man, I could have kept on drinking it all night.

I asked my friend Jeff, who'd wheeled it along to dinner in response to my recent plaint about the absence of acidity in most beers, to bring me back a case on his next trip to Wisconsin. It seems, he told me, that little if any of New Glarus' production leaves Wisconsin. Exacerbating those logistical issues, it turns out that the "Unplugged" series of beers produced by New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey are essentially one-offs, brews made on a whim and with wild abandon, with little or no promise of repetition.

Brewed with top-fermenting yeasts (five different strains in this case) along with the addition of lactobacillus culture, the berliner weisse style usually has a refreshingly tart, citric character. In Germany as well as here in the States, berliner weisse is often served with the addition of raspberry syrup (red) or woodruff syrup (green) to cut the beer's tartness. But please, no sweet'n'sticky stuff when it comes to the New Glarus version. This beer is way too good in its unadulterated and, dare I say, unplugged form.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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No More Vin de Table, and Other Idiosyncrasies of French Wine Labeling: A Case Study

Date: Fri, May 7, 2010 Wine Tasting

It's more than fair to say that I take a far greater interest in what's in the bottle — and what it takes to get it there — than what's on the bottle. Nonetheless, I have been known to take more than a passing interest in the finer points of labeling, especially as those details apply to the subtleties (and vagaries) of the French and Italian wine bureaucracies, not to mention the semantic choices made at wineries.

Subtle labeling changes with any particular wine from vintage to vintage, sometimes even mid-vintage, are so common that one could devote a blog entirely to their chronicling and easily find fodder for 365+ posts per year. I'm not about to build that house, as I wouldn't want to live in it. But I will visit from time to time when the opportunity grabs me.

Not even touching on the fact that I love the wine (at least not for now), there's an awful lot going on with Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque," which has undergone fairly major changes in labeling semantics in the last three consecutive vintages.
When the differences in labeling between the 2007, 2008 and 2009 editions of "Vin de Pétanque" from Mas de Libian caught my eye — I had enjoyed a bottle of the 2008 only days before the 2009 came ashore (and came home for dinner) — I fought my natural inclination to try to interpret all of the changes on my own. Instead, I reached out to Hélène Thibon, who grows the wines at Mas de Libian, with a veritable avalanche of questions. I suspect the detail of my questions may have taken her by surprise, but she responded with grace — and lots of great information. Here's what she had to say, peppered, of course, with my own interpretations. I couldn't leave them out entirely now, could I?

Vin de Pays, Vin de Table, Vin de France

The biggest shift, in that it is indicative of the farthest-reaching changes, is in the official designation of the three vintages: Vin de Pays for the '07, Vin de Table for the '08, and Vin de France (I believe the "Bon" is purely Hélène's modification) in '09.

There was a time that I might have jumped to the conclusion that a move from AOC or Vin de Pays status to "Vin de Table" was a forced declassification, a punishment of sorts as legislated by the bureaucrats of the INAO. But over the last few years, an increasing number of producers have been voluntarily opting to use the supposedly inferior VdT category. Hélène confirmed that the latter was indeed the case. She had originally chosen Vin de Pays status for Pétanque, even though the fruit comes entirely from her young vines in the Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages areas, as her own personal declassification, a statement that said "this is my simpler, more casual wine." She chose the move to Vin de Table status with the 2008 vintage because it allowed her greater freedom when it came to decisions such as harvest date and blending.

As for the move from Vin de Table to Vin de France in '09, Hélène is simply getting a head start. At the end of 2010, the Vin de Table designation will no longer be allowed in France, replaced by the seemingly catch-all designation of Vin de France. This is part of a broad spectrum of changes to the entire French AOC system, as well as to geographic labeling conventions throughout the EU, that are due to be implemented by the end of this year. You can read a little more about it here.

2007, 8002, 2009

After the big changes detailed above, the rest are at least somewhat simpler and largely interrelated. Vin de Pays status has historically allowed for, indeed required, the vintage dating of wines. The Vin de Table category, conversely, did not allow the use of a vintage date on the label, whether or not the wine was produced from the fruit of a single harvest. A kind of legislative punishment for utilizing the VdT category, one (along with the VdT status itself) likely to result in more difficult sales for the bulk of wineries. Producers came up with all kind of creative ways to convey the year of origin of their wines, from lot numbers to embedded codes in their label art. Hélène's solution for her 2008 VdT was simple: print the date in reverse and make it look ambiguously artsy — in this case, like an etching on a pétanque ball. With the new "Vin de France" category, vintage dates are permitted.

Hélène Thibon and her horse Nestor, conducting déchaussage (plowing soil back from the foots of the vines) in the vineyard at spring. I've taken the liberty of borrowing the above picture from the new Mas de Libian website, which is more than worth a visit (even if you don't like Flash) for its extensive photo gallery.

Mas de Libian "Vin de Pétanque," Vin de Pétanque de Libian
(Mise en bouteille au mas, Mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian)

The stricture against vintage dating having been lifted, the INAO apparently felt it necessary to put another ambiguity (and potential economic hardship) in place. The shift here is subtle and requires an understanding of the language used on French wine labels to differentiate between estate bottled and non-estate bottled wines.

Any time a a winery name as presented on a wine label opens with the words Domaine, Château or, less frequently, Mas (southern French dialect for "farmhouse"), you're being told that the wine is estate-bottled. It's been produced by a winery that owns and farms its own land; harvests and crushes its own fruit; vinifies, ages and bottles its own wines; and markets those wines under its own label.

Likewise, there are any number of phrases that are part and parcel of French wine labels that can also convey this kind of information. "Mise en bouteille au domaine... au château... à la proprieté... au mas" all indicate that a wine was "placed in bottle at the estate," estate bottled if you prefer.

So, one arbitrary rule having been lifted, another has been put in place. The regulations for the Vin de France category do not allow wines to be labeled as estate bottled, even if they are — and Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque" is. It's the shifts in the naming and provenance conventions in use on the label that reflects this change, as "mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian" means "bottled by Mas de Libian," not bottled "at the estate." Someone out of the know with the background of this wine but in the know with French labeling conventions would pick up this bottle, read the label, and rightly assume (but wrongly conclude) that it is some form of négociant or more commercial bottling.

That's it for the technical stuff. As with so many other independent vigneron(ne)s, Hélène is accepting the somewhat pejorative nature of the Vin de Table/Vin de France rules rather than being subject to the more restrictive nature of the rules governing the higher categories of VDP and AOC, which will soon be replaced by Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) and Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) — more on those at a future date, when I've had a chance to more fully understand and digest the legalese of their meanings. To quote Hélène via my rough translation capabilities, "We do not want to be slaves of the new European and French directives that we deem aberrant!"

Produce of France, Product of France

This is an old favorite of mine, something I've long wanted to post about. To my knowledge, this language, in the large sense, must appear on all French wine labels. The exact syntax, though, is up to the winery (or label designer). While "Product of France" (and the corresponding "Produit de France") is by far the more common, I have a soft spot for "Produce...". Though I suspect it's more an accident of translation than an intentional play on the subtleties of English, I like the way that "produce," used as a noun, denotes the wine as a food product, an agricultural product. I hope I'm not the only one that thinks like this.

Vin issu de raisin de l'agriculture biologique certifié par...

I'm still waiting for an answer from Hélène on this. Her entire estate has been farmed organically since the 1960s, and she began biodynamic conversion in 2005. As far as I know, the entire property is certified organic. Yet the only one of her wines where I've ever seen the certification (by ULASE) mentioned is "Pétanque" and it's been dropped from the label with her 2009 release. Is it a marketing issue? Another imposed limitation? Or simply personal choice? Your thoughts are welcome, and I'll share Mme. Thibon's response as soon as possible.

What about the wine, you say?

Oh yeah, if you've made it this far I suppose you might want to know at least a little bit about what's in the bottle. As I said in opening, that's what really counts.

"Vin de Pétanque" is a blend of Grenache and Syrah (about 75/25) from the young vines (4-20 years-old) of the estate, fermented in tank with native yeasts, a short maceration of about five days, and no added sulfur dioxide. As the name implies ("pétanque" is the local name for boules), Hélène views it as a casual wine for everyday enjoyment, one that can be served chilled throughout the summer.

The 2009 is delicious; richer (13%) than the previous two vintages and an early indicator of the success of the vintage both in the Ardèche and at the Mas de Libian. It's dark purple in the glass, a color reflected in the wine's juicy spirit and vibrant energy, vibrantly fruity and enticingly peppery. Summer indeed. I'm thinking burgers — or just about anything else you might consider throwing on the grill and pairing with a fresh, young red.

Enjoy it (you really should), and thanks for reading!

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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One Week 'til Piedmont

Date: Wed, May 5, 2010 Wine Tasting

Exactly one week from today, I'll be headed to Piedmont. I've been hankering to return there ever since my first and last visit, back in 2006, so I'm super jazzed about the trip. The impetus was an invitation to attend Nebbiolo Prima (formerly known as the Alba Wine Exposition, if I'm not mistaken) from Albeisa, the producers' consortium for the wine regions in the immediate environs of Alba (Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero) and the organizers of the event.

Roughly half of my time in the region will be spent attending Nebbiolo Prima (yes, that part of the trip is a sponsored press junket). The other half will be on my own time and dime, visiting producers (some of whom I've met before, others who I've long wanted to), tucking in to the famously rich Piemontese cuisine and exploring the area. Piedmont only. I'm finally fighting the temptation to go "all over."

My schedule is already filling up fast, but I'd love to hear from any of you with suggestions for must-sees, must-dos, must-eats and must-drinks. Can't promise I'll be able to fit them all in but I'll certainly give it the old college try.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Surfing the Geezer Post-Punk Bargain Bin

Date: Sun, May 2, 2010 Wine Tasting

Ever spot one of those wines, whether in a random retail shopping stop or on the list at a restaurant of dubious distinction, that seems like it might be just a little too good to be true? Old enough that you wonder whether it will still be good, but not so old that you're not awfully tempted? Not too pricey but not so cheap as to raise alarms? And you go for it: part against your better judgment, and part because you're hoping against hope for the off chance of something special?

Happened to me a short while back with a little British number known as Echo & the Bunnymen. A heads-up flickered across my screen, the price wasn't prohibitive, the mood was right. I went for it.

Turned out to be an alright move. Things were a little smoke-addled up front, not quite as primal as in its earlier years, but the voice was still unmistakable. The mid-stretch was strong, bolstered by an influx of new blood via an updated, hard-driving rhythm section. It wasn't until the last sips that things kind of fell apart, with a big finale followed by an excruciatingly long pause, eventually trailing off into an unfocused, rambling, somewhat apologetic finish.

I took about twenty pictures of Ian McCullough, who seemed to spend most of the night thinking he was fronting The Jesus and Mary Chain rather than the Bunnymen — motionless, sunglasses after dark, hands and mic obscuring any clear glimpse of his visage, occasionally pausing to insult someone in the crowd (not that they didn't deserve it)....

The two guitar wielding Bunnymen were at opposite corners of the stage from one another, out of width-of-field range vis-a-vis the above shot of the rest of the band. Gordy Goudie, stage right from the crowd's perspective, provided rhythmic attack and a little glam/rocker ethos. Gordy also sat in with the evening's opening act, Kelley Stoltz (who put out a very good set of honest, slightly edgy geek-pop).

At far left, Will Sergeant, the only other original member of the band aside from McCullough, delivered the delay-driven atmospherics and melodies essential to the Bunnymen sound.

One of the most clearly updated songs of the night was "Bring on the Dancing Horses," less New Order-ish in its techno/dance-beat backing than the original, with some new phrasing and vocal intonations from Ian M. The video below is from three years ago or thereabouts but has a very similar feel to that experienced at last Sunday night's show at the Keswick, right down to the fan and fog machine.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Josh George: Straight Outta Richmond

Date: Fri, Apr 30, 2010 Wine Tasting

For today's post, I'm handing over the reins to a guest blogger: Josh George. A regular reader and semi-regular commenter here at MFWT, Josh is a guy I think of as a friend even though we've met only via the blogosphere. By way of intro, I asked him to write a few words about himself. Take it away, Josh.

My wife and I left New York six months ago to head south to the small town of Richmond, Virginia. I wanted space to paint big and she wanted peace and quiet to focus on her writing. We started a blog — Who's Afraid of Virginia? — to document our new life and new changes. We want to show the rest of the world how pretty and vibrant Richmond is, with its historic neighborhoods and the local art and food scene. After a few posts my wife became too busy with her writing but I try to keep it alive by posting photos of food and wine porn.

As Josh hinted at only modestly above, he's an accomplished painter, who shows regularly in New York and has done album cover art for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny — yet another of our common interests.

Please check out Josh's portfolio at his official website, JoshGeorge.com, and follow his news and works in progress at his painterly blog, joshgeorge.blogspot.com.

Though I wasn't able to make it to New York last week for the annual Louis/Dressner portfolio tasting and Euro-invasion extravaganza, Josh jetted up to NYC for the day just to be there. Here's his report....

We sat in the airport terminal, reluctantly eating a greasy, overly-processed breakfast from one of the vendors. Suffering through a soggy "panino," I knew I'd soon redeem my crappy meal by tasting a portfolio of all natural, honest expressions of earth.

I work a few shifts a week and hang-out part time at J. Emerson Fine Wine down in Richmond, Virginia. On April 22, my manager and I joined forces with the natural wine guys from Williams Corner to take a quick day trip up to New York for the Louis/Dressner tasting. Though excited to taste some of my hero's wines, I wondered how bittersweet the visit would be for me, having just left New York after living there for ten years. I got over any sentimentality after sitting in traffic for an hour on the Williamsburg bridge.

We were greeted by a geeky sign coded for those in the wine business. Out of 29 vignerons, only 16 could escape the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull that interrupted European air travel. Along with rain, sleet, snow and drought, the volcano was just another element that the winemakers had to deal with and made for some fun conversations.

Lost between three distributors, the wines of Roagna got their own sealed off Luca Lounge. Polaner will still handle the wines in New York and New Jersey and not be a part of the move to David Bowler. Nationally they will sell through Louis/Dressner, or something like that. Anyway, the whole lineup was there from the '05 Bianca Solea, little Dolcetto and Barbera, the '03 Langhe Rosso, the 'what's in it?' Opera Prima XVII and bottlings from both Barbaresco and Barolo.

A man on a mission. Franck Peillot of Franck Peillot raced to escape the volcanic cloud by driving 800 miles from Bugey to Madrid to catch a flight to get to New York. His non-vintage Montagnieu Brut was bottled, bubbly herbs that can take on anything from Champagne. The '08 Roussette de Bugey Altesse tart and nutty, and the '08 Mondeuse was like warm wool in the mouth. What's not to love?

Manuela & François Chidaine of Vouvray and the stones throw Montlouis had maybe the prettiest wines in the room. Maybe a little riper than other current releases from that part of the Loire, easily enjoyable in their youth.

The wines of Clos du Tue-Boeuf are always a favorite. From the lean, crystal scented Le P'tit Blanc, the wonderfully raspy '09 La Butte, to the mysterious cloudy colored, crushed violet scented '09 Cheverny Rouge.

Pierrot Bonhomme, Thierry Puzelat's business partner, has vines of his own. His unfortunately named '08 Touraine Rouge "KO In Cot We Trust" was a show stopper, proving that Malbec is just a grape, not a flavor in itself but more a communication device to show off some really distinct dirt. I could have this on the dinner table every night.

Cascina degli Ulivi was one of the volcano victims. Alessandra Bera of Bera Vittorio & Figli was around to see us all marvel at their '09 Moscato d'Asti.

Here's Scott Bridi overseeing animals in all forms. He runs the charcuterie program at Marlowe & Daughters. Before that he headed the kitchen at the rustic Lot 2 in Brooklyn and also did meat at the famous Gramercy Tavern for two years. We were in good hands.

My biggest surprise of the day were the wines of Radikon. I was prepared to dislike these mythical monstrosities, thinking they were unobtainable, super sexed up, oxidized trophies. I was so wrong, they were super cool. Maybe it was the context with all the other wines of the day but they were so bizarre, so different, lush and vibrant with bulletproof zip.

Sasa Radikon was on hand to explain the farming, vinification and their approach to bottling. The farming like most of the other vignerons on hand is biodynamic and natural, hand harvested, low yields, all that. What is interesting is the 90 days of skin maceration and the 3 years in large Slavonian oak that make them somewhat indestructible. The 500 ml bottles are used to house the skinny little corks they have specially made, which they feel ages the wine at just the right pace.

These beautiful cider and tea colored wines can justify the high prices.

Natural wine enthusiast Alice Feiring chatting up Olivier Riviere about his un-Rioja-like wines. The '09 Rayos Uva and the '07-08 Ganko and the '08 Gabacho had a bright red freshness that contrasted the oaky, roasted norm.

The man himself keeping everything under control.

The crew from Williams Corner Wine getting the V.I.P. treatment with Luca Roagna.

Even with all the spitting, trying to taste one hundred wines can take a toll on one's constitution. I made a turbo escape for Gimme! Coffee down in Soho. One of the things I miss about New York is good espresso, though outstanding coffee didn't exist in New York until 2001. I'm hoping it is just a matter of time before it trickles down to Richmond. Gimme! does it right.

The crime scene that was Matthieu Baudry. Les Granges was delicious in its youth; the '08 Clos Guillot and the '08 Croix Boisée were like buried treasure.

Francesca Padovani of Campi di Fonterenza was on hand with pink wine, a vertical of little Sangiovese, up through the '07 Rosso di Montalcino and a surprisingly elegant and restrained but mouth drying '04 Brunello. I had to run back to the meat table in between pours.

Also on hand was Jean-Paul Brun of Terre Dorées in Beaujolais. I was too intimidated to take his picture. It was a pleasure, though, shaking his meaty farmer hand. His wines might have been the day's winner. The place was nuts over superstar Eric Texier; he was pouring flavors from Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and of course his greatest discovery of Brézème.

Our last stop before flying home was Peking Duck House Midtown. We were able to sneak in a bunch of Dressner wines to see how they could handle two whole ducks. Afterward our palates were beat... we finished off the night with a $9 Peroni at the airport.

Thank you Louis/Dressner for doing what you do.

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Cognac, Calvados, Chocolate...

Date: Wed, Apr 28, 2010 Wine Tasting

Just read that title.... What more could you ask for on a Thursday night? A wee dram of Scotch and a sip of Bourbon? Okay, you've got it.

All that's left to do is call the good folks at Eclat Chocolate, located in the heart of West Chester, PA, and you're in.

Both seatings for tomorrow night's event, where I'll be pairing small-batch spirits with artisan chocolates created and presented by Master Chocolatier Christopher Curtin, were sold out... until a last minute bout of cancellations hit.

Sound too good to be true? I hope so, but true it is. And there are a couple of spots open at each seating.

The full details:

When: Thursday, April 29, 2010
Two seatings: 6:30 to 8:00 PM, and 8:30 to 10:00 PM.
Cost: $55/person, all inclusive.
Location: Eclat Chocolate, 24 South High Street, West Chester, PA 19382
Phone: 610-692-5206

Come on out, dang it! It'll be a blast.


Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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A Visitor from the Luberon

Date: Mon, Apr 26, 2010 Wine Tasting

When I visited Domaine de la Citadelle back in the fall of 2000, I viewed it at the time as simply a happy coincidence. I was staying for a few days in the Luberon, and our home base was in a B&B located in the valley below the hilltop village of Ménerbes. There just happened to be a winery, a handsome one at that, within easy walking distance. We kind of had to check it out, non? As luck would have it, the wines we sampled in the Domaine's tasting room were pretty damn tasty so, after taking a spin through their Musée du Tire-Bouchon, we left with an armful of bottles to enjoy with our lunches (and afternoon snacks) over the next few days.

That happy coincidence turned into a more surprising one when, three or four years later, the wines of Domaine de la Citadelle showed up at the shop where I work. They've remained in steady rotation there ever since. As with wines from other estates I've had the chance to visit, I enjoy a certain comfort in selling them, as first-hand experience always makes what's in the bottle more personally meaningful — and correspondingly easier to recommend.

Over the ensuing years, I've met Alexis-Rousset Rouard on a few occasions. Alexis' father, Yves Rousset-Rouard, essentially created the Domaine de la Citadelle when he bought the property — a farmhouse and eight hectares of vineyards at the time — in 1989. Alexis joined his father at the estate in 1995 — it's now expanded to include approximately 40 hectares under vine — and has since taken an ever increasing role in both farming and winemaking responsibilities. Saturday just past, I got to know Alexis a good deal better, spending the better part of the day helping him pour and present his wines for the steady stream of customers that came by the shop to taste with him.

When the clock struck closing time at the tasting table, I posed a simple question to Alexis: shall we head to a local restaurant, or accept an invitation to dine with friends? His quick answer: chez amis.

Sometimes staying in really does trump going out, especially after a long day at the office. That's Alexis above, relaxing at the kitchen island in the home of our gracious hosts, Bill and Kelly, with my friend and coworker Eric resting it out in the background.

Since our hosts hadn't made it to the tasting, we carried along a bottle of Domaine de la Citadelle's 2008 Luberon blanc "Le Châtaignier" (pictured way up above) to enjoy with dinner. It's a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc, fermented and aged solely in tank. As with all of Alexis' wines in the "Le Châtaignier" ("the chestnut tree") line — there's a red and rosé as well — it's produced from a parcel-by-parcel selection of young vine fruit and vinified with the intention of producing a bright, fruit-driven, relatively simple yet characterful wine for everyday enjoyment. Like all of the estate's wines, it's also marked by refreshing acidity; Alexis likes to call it tension. We're not talking tongue-twisting action for all you acid freaks out there, but we are talking about brighter acidity than typical in most of the Southern Rhône. That acidity is a direct side effect of the cool nights and moderate elevation (about 300 meters) in the Luberon vignobles, where harvest typically starts 8-15 days later than in other parts of the Southern Rhône.

The crisp yet ripe texture, orchard fruit flavors, and delicately mineral finish of "Le Châtaignier" blanc made for a delicious pairing with Bill's pan-seared scallops and crunchy "green linguine."

Alexis' vin blanc was a no-brainer, but there was a big question facing us for the rest of the night. Just what do you pour when a winemaker comes over for dinner?

I'd considered bringing along an older Domaine de la Citadelle bottle from the home cellar (something like this, perhaps), but then I figured that Alexis can drink his own wines pretty much whenever he wants. Hmmm...

I think we were all in accord that one can rarely go wrong with Champagne. Bill had actually figured that one out ahead of time, as he had a bottle of José Michel's 1997 Champagne "Spécial Club" lightly chilled and ready to be popped when we arrived. Michel's "Club" bottling is consistently delicious wine. While the '97 may not have quite the elegance and fine structure of the 1996 (that I wrote about as a guest Chez Brooklynguy quite some time ago), it was still vibrantly youthful, showing all of the richness, opulence and ready-and-raring-to-go qualities of the '97 vintage.

What else, though? So many options... but is Burgundy really a bad way to go? We thought not.

We paired Robert Ampeau's 1994 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru "Combettes" with Bill's franco-american spin on spaghetti carbonara. The sauce featured quail's eggs in place of the traditional hen's eggs; pork belly that Bill had smuggled back from Paris in the stead of pancetta; and sautéed ramp greens in lieu of the oft-tossed fistful of chopped flat-leaf parsley. The caramel depth of the wine's tertiary fruit and its stony finish turned out to be a surprisingly decent match to the subtly smoky yet delicate flavors of the pasta. It wasn't the most vibrant bottle of the '94 Combettes I've had but it was still in great shape, an admirable showing.

The 2007 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru "Morgeot" of Henri Germain wasn't too shabby a match with our next course, either. Bill's really been dialing it in at the stove-top of late. His butter-braised grouper cheeks, each one about as big around as a standard muffin-top (guess I should have included something in the photo to give a sense of scale), were absolutely scrumptious. I really dig Henri Germain's wines, too. They're hard to resist when they're young, like this bottle so painfully was — all nervy and wound up like a spring but with vibrant, focused fruit intensity and great length. I've yet to taste any mature examples of his whites but there's a bottle of the 2002 version of this very wine waiting in the cellar for that certain moment. Just keeping my fingers crossed that there won't be any prem-ox issues....

Just to be fair, we threw in a little red wine between courses.... The 2005 Montefalco Rosso "Vigna San Valentino" from Paolo Bea — a blend of 70% Sangiovese along with 15% each of Montepulciano and Sagrantino — was snappy, fresh and vibrant. Way too easy to drink and a beautiful example of just how approachable and versatile Sangiovese-based reds can be at the table

While we obviously opted for an all-Euro entourage of wines, we didn't want to leave Alexis without a taste of home — our home, that is. I'd missed the morning's ramp romp (yes, working on Saturdays is not without its downsides) but Bill and some friends had gone a-foraging and the ramps pictured above were fresh and tasty as could be, lending their springtime fragrance and savor to all three of the dishes we enjoyed on Saturday night.

Looking back at last year's edition of the ramp fest, it seems we broke out a remarkably similar range of dishes and even some coincidentally (and happily) similar wine selections this year. Turns out there's comfort to be found in both the familiarity of home and the reassurance of consistency.

We'll expect you back again next year, Alexis.

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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The Passion of the Fish

Date: Fri, Apr 23, 2010 Wine Tasting

This could have been an Earth Day post. Passionfish, located at one end of the precious heart of Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove, CA, was the first restaurant in Monterey County to receive "Green" certification. Chef/owner Ted Walter works extensively with local, organically farmed produce and selects only sustainable fish for his seafood-dominated menu. One-half of the restaurant's $20 corkage fee is donated to the Tag-A-Giant Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to rebuilding and preserving the Bluefin Tuna population in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Yep, this could have been about Earth Day if I weren't a day late. But timeliness is not the point of today's post, which is actually about a meal I enjoyed over a month ago while in the Monterey area for my friends Steve and Stacy's nuptial festivities. My wife and I took advantage of the one free night of the trip to sneak in a special dinner. Given the glowing recommendations from Stevie, Passionfish it was — and yes, this post is at least a little bit about the food...

We started with one of the day's specials, Hog Island Oysters, farm-raised in nearby Tomales Bay, topped with carrot-ginger granita; followed by a South Asian-inspired salad of Malaysian pole caught squid with spicy cilantro-citrus sauce and mango; and a salad of warm brussel sprouts and grapes with pancetta and ricotta salata.

Though the "Entrees from the Land" on the menu sounded delicious enough, we hadn't traveled 3,000 miles and opted to dine at a place called Passionfish to eat braised beef or gnocchi. Oil-poaching is the specialty of the house — four of the six fish entrees on offer during our visit were prepared in said manner. I opted for the striped bass with crispy sweet potatoes, romesco, caramelized onions and chard (below, at left), while my dining companion chose what turned out to be the favorite dish of the night for us both, sturgeon with lemongrass-jasmine rice, lemongrass slaw and spicy red curry vinaigrette.

The desserts were no slouch either. We tried to share a single plate — I'm a sucker for bread pudding and Passionfish's pear bread pudding with Madeira-caramel sauce was delicious — but our server was having nothing of it. She insisted on bringing us an order of bruléed bananas served with coconut mousse and lime curd, her favorite of the house-made desserts, which was plated in a playful riff on bacon and eggs.

As much as I enjoyed our meal at Passionfish, what I really wanted to write about, what still has me thinking about our experience there over a month later, is the restaurant's fantastic wine program. Sommeliere (I'll call her that even if she doesn't like the term) Jannae Lizza has put together an extremely diverse, thoughtful list. Sure, there's the occasional red that seems too big for the fish flesh-driven fare – this is California after all – but just look at her list!

Cantina del Pino Dolcetto d'Alba for $20. Domaine de la Tournelle "L'Uva Arbosiana" at $25. Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny for $50. Domaine du Closel Savennières "La Jalousie" at $35. Jean Manciat's "Franclieu" for $25. I mean, come on!

The wines by the bottle are priced at or just barely above what would equate to standard retail price in most markets. That's pretty unheard of in most necks of the woods, and it's a great way to ensure that a bottle ends up on just about every table.

Being that we were just the two of us, I fought the temptation to order three or four bottles and instead opted to splurge on something special. Actually, we did go for two bottles, as I couldn't say no to the thought of Champagne with our oysters and René Geoffroy's "Cuvée l'Empreinte" was calling my name from Jannae's more than respectable list of options by the half-bottle. The slighty more rapid development of Champers in half-bottle combined with a disgorgement date of April 2007 (thanks for the data, Mr. Theise) to yeild a wine that was, to my preferences, more mature than ideal with our brisk, briny bivalves. Nevertheless, it was a compelling drink – slightly oxidative, with very apple-y fruit and toasty palate characteristics, fronted by an even more apple-y nose (red apple skins, to be exact).

And that special bottle? Unless you're reclining while someone else reads this to you aloud, you've already spotted the picture at right/above. It's something I'd always wanted to drink but for which I'd never been able to bring myself to plunk down the necessary cash. In a nice restaurant, on vacation and at a price equal to or better than what I'd pay in a retail shop back in the Philly area, though, I had to go for it. The 2007 Pouilly-Fumé "Silex" from Didier Dagueneau (RIP) was immensely vinous and penetrating. Its unmistakable Sauvignon Blanc character was backed by a mineral pungency more reminiscent of a fine Nahe Riesling, while its wood influence was totally enveloped in fruit richness and grapefruit oil aromatics. Most of all, its namesake flint drove through on both the nose and the mineral-laden finish. Am I going to rush out for a case of it at ~$120 a pop? Nope, but I'm glad we went for it at Passionfish.

Passion Fish
701 Lighthouse Avenue
Pacific Grove, CA 93950-2501
(831) 655-3311
Passionfish on Urbanspoon

Original content published at McDuff's Food & Wine Trail. All work copyright David McDuff and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-ND Works 3.0 Unported License.

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