Monday, December 31, 2007

Another Evening of Clos des Goisses

I could never tire of drinking Clos des Goisses. The vertical tasting in London a few weeks ago was magnificent, but this weekend I wanted to do something slightly different: a tasting of different types of wine produced from the Clos.

The classic wine from the Clos des Goisses is, of course, a champagne made from roughly 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay. But in 1999, Philipponnat made the first-ever rosé champagne from the Clos, which offers a whole new perspective on this terroir. Unbeknownst to most people, Philipponnat also produces a tiny amount of still white wine from the Clos des Goisses, bottled as Coteaux Champenois. (There is also a 2004 red Coteaux Champenois mis-labeled as Clos des Goisses. This wine, however, actually comes from an adjacent vineyard called Les Remissons, which has historically been considered part of the Clos but which Philipponnat has never included in the blend for the champagne. As the quantity produced is so tiny, and is in fact not really commercially available, they can hardly be accused of misleading marketing, but if you do happen to run across a bottle of it, just remember this.)

Our tasting included all of the above wines, and it was extremely intriguing to see the same vineyard expressed in so many different fashions. As far as I know, there is no other vineyard in Champagne – or anywhere else, for that matter - that produces still wine, sparkling wine and sparkling rosé. It’s a completely novel way to look at terroir.

And yes, the Clos des Goisses rosé is stunning.

My complete notes from this evening can be found here.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Peter + Zinfandel =

I don’t drink much zinfandel. Some people say that I’m a Eurocentric snob, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with it. I don’t have anything against the grape itself. It’s the style of the wine in the post-Turley era that I have little interest in. It doesn’t really matter where it’s from or what it’s made out of – if your wine has 16 percent alcohol, perceptible residual sugar and jammy, overripe fruit, I don’t want to drink it. (I will happily discriminate equally, without regard to variety, region, race or religion.)

Zinfandel wasn’t always made this way. Given a chance, zinfandel can make an elegantly balanced, soil-expressive, ageworthy wine. Last night my friends and I tasted a number of zins from Joseph Swan, one of the old masters of the variety. The 1986, one of the last vintages made by Swan himself, was impressively youthful, with a dark, rich concentration of fruit and firm acidity to hold it in place. I was a little less enthralled with the 1985, which felt compressed and one-dimensional, or with the 1983, which was the only one that showed a roasted, warm-weather character to the fruit. The 1982, however, was my favorite of the night – rich, complex and harmonious, it saturated the palate through intensity of flavor rather than relying on weight or ripeness, and appeared to be at an optimal point of maturity. I also loved the 1981 for its crisp, cranberry-like acidity and juicy, high-toned sense of red fruit flavor.

None of these wines had the alcohol listed on the label, but I doubt that any of them could be higher than 13 percent. None of them felt in the least bit alcoholic, nor did any of them exhibit any trace of overripeness. Even the 1983 felt roasted from warm weather rather than desiccated from over-maturity as many modern wines are. I realize that these might not be the sort of wines that true zin lovers are looking for, and in fact, some might be distinctly disappointed with them. But for me, this style is so much more intrinsically worthwhile than the over-extracted, alcoholic fruit bombs. I’m not saying that there aren’t good zins being made today. I don’t think, though, that anyone is making wines like these. If they did, I might be more interested in zinfandel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Expanding the Champagne Appellation

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times today about the proposed expansion of Champagne’s vineyard area.

Of course, any reorganization of AOC land is going to result in massive differences in opinion. I still think that the CIVC is going about it in a reasonably sensible way, but it remains to be seen what exactly will happen over the next few years. I only wish that they would take advantage of all of their extensive terroir research to do a more detailed cru classification, rather than just sticking to the binary designation of either being part of the Champagne AOC or not, but of course that’s hardly likely when there’s so much commercial interest involved.

The most insightful commentary on the expansion so far has been Tom Stevenson’s analysis (referred to in the Times piece) in Tom Cannavan’s Wine Pages – if you haven’t read it yet, you’ll find it here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Good and Bad Vintages

I just arrived in Portland, Oregon, last night to be greeted by a bottle of 1974 Deutz poured for me by my friend Pete. As you know, 1974 was less than spectacular in Champagne, yet this wine was wonderful: fresh, lively and vibrant, it provided remarkably delicious drinking even at 33 years of age, from a crappy vintage. Was it a tremendously complex or complete wine? No, it wasn't. But was it satisfying? Very.

This made me think about how we as consumers view the idea of vintage. Too often consumers will choose only the “best” vintages – the ripest, biggest, grandest years – and ignore the rest. I would prefer to view vintages as each possessing its own character, and each having usefulness in its own way. Even beyond that, I think of memorable and great champagnes that I’ve had from unheralded vintages: 1980 Clos des Goisses, 1974 Philipponnat Grand Blanc, 1978 Cristal, 1991 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée, to name a few.

Many Champenois that I speak with will privately admit that some of the so-called lesser vintages have held up better than the really big ones. I was once served a delightfully lively and delicious 1956 made of pure meunier by José Michel. Remarking on its freshness, I asked him how this might compare to the 1959. “The ’56 has aged much better,” he said. “The ’59 is long past its best.”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Retailers: Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, CA

Whenever I'm in Southern California I always try to stop by Hi-Time Wine Cellars to browse through the terrific assortment of champagnes. Their selection of over 200 champagnes ranges from the largest houses to tiny growers you've never heard of, and Hi-Time has carried an extensive array of grower champagne since well before it became fashionable to do so. Recently they've expanded their wine cellar to include a room devoted to champagne and sparkling wines, and like the rest of the cellar it's fully temperature-controlled (which isn't always the case in the Los Angeles area, although it should be). They've got an equally impressive collection of wines from other regions around the world, which I do look at from time to time, but invariably I find myself buying more champagne here than anything else.

Hi-Time Wine Cellars - 250 Ogle Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cooking with Fire

There’s nothing like cooking with real fire, and my friend Josh is a master at it. Last night he made a Provençal string-turned leg of lamb in his fireplace (my photo didn’t come out, so I shamelessly lifted one off of his website). Succulent and delicious, it made a fine accompaniment to a surprisingly approachable 1996 Lynch-Bages and a richly fruity 2003 Domaine de la Charbonnière Vieilles Vignes. (Lest you think I’m not drinking enough champagne, we also had a stunning bottle of 1996 De Sousa Blanc de Blancs, disgorged in 2005.)

I haven’t got a fireplace, unfortunately, nor a firepit in my backyard. But you might have one or the other. Check out Josh’s website, The Firepit and Grilling Guru, for all things pyromaniacally culinary.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tacos: LA's Greatest Gastronomic Treasure

Just arrived in Los Angeles, and made a beeline for my favorite taco source: El Parian, on Pico Boulevard. Once past the slightly forbidding exterior, this place is a treat – people are warm and friendly, the grill is hot, and the beer is cold.
Carne asada is the thing to get here, grilled in thick, copious portions that are barely contained by the freshly handmade tortillas. This is the stuff I dream about in France, where getting real Mexican food is about as likely as finding an authentic baguette in Kansas.

Two fat asada tacos and one equally fat birria taco later, I was driving towards LACMA and realized that today is Wednesday, meaning that it’s closed. Damn! Fortunately, I happened to be passing El Taurino, which sufficiently distracted me from the Japanese calligraphy exhibition that I was missing.
I have a great respect for bulls. As taco reporter Bandini says in his outstanding blog, The Great Taco Hunt, “I’ve never been to a taqueria that had a bull head mounted on the wall that didn’t have great tacos.” The tacos at El Taurino are indeed excellent, with smoky, charry carne asada and a pungent salsa roja. I think if El Parian is having a good day it still can’t be beaten, but the salsa roja at El Taurino is awesome.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll go on an al pastor hunt.

El Parian - 1528 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
El Taurino - 1104 S. Hoover Street, Los Angeles

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Restaurants: Del Posto, NYC

I had a lovely dinner at the Del Posto enoteca with my friend Dilek over the weekend. The food was excellent, pastas particularly so (we were treated to four of them), and the Italian wine list was as outstanding as one might expect from a Batali and Bastianich restaurant. But what surprised me most was the superb list of champagnes. Wine director Morgan Rich has a three-page collection that will satisfy any champagne aficionado. You’ll find plenty of growers you know (Vilmart, Egly-Ouriet, Pierre Gimonnet) and growers you might not (Serveaux, Leclaire-Gaspard). If your tastes run more mainstream, an array of houses ranges from Bollinger to Veuve Clicquot, Laurent-Perrier to Jacquesson, and if you’re looking to splurge on an old bottle of Krug or Dom Pérignon, you’ll find that here, too. Taking advantage of being outside of France, I opted to drink nebbiolo – 1992 Bartolo Mascarello – but to begin we were presented with the boldly flavored, pinot- and meunier-dominated rosé from Laherte Frères, an excellent grower just south of Epernay. Del Posto’s selection, combined with outstanding service and superb stemware (made by Movia) makes this one of the best places in the city to drink champagne.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Stud of the Week

Another tense London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea today. Gallas’s goal was a delight, but when Arsenal’s defense began to break down, it was Manuel Almunia who kept the team alive with a series of superb saves. Much of the second half was nerve-wracking as Arsenal seemed to lose their composure, but Almunia stayed sharp all the way through to record a clean sheet and keep Arsenal top of the table.

Jens who?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Is This Terroir?

I’m eating a chocolate truffle from Bernachon, the world-famous chocolatier in Lyon. It’s rich, buttery and decadent, and while not excessive, it’s very ample and intense, and projects a feeling of abundance. In this it seems to personify the very spirit of that city of gastronomy. In contrast, the truffles from my favorite chocolatier in Paris, Jean-Paul Hévin, seem to embody the Parisian ideal – in a colder, more reserved, more northerly city, the chocolate exhibits a greater sense of restraint, nuance and elegance. Is this a sort of terroir? Can the regional sensibilities of a people be identified and referenced in the same manner as we do the characters of soil and slope and climate?

(By the way, whether one prefers the Bernachon or the Hévin is a matter of taste – they’re both top class. I’m more of a northerly sort of guy myself.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Vertical Tasting of Clos des Goisses

I was fortunate to be able to attend a tasting in London yesterday of Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, one of my favorite champagnes. Hosted by Tom Stevenson, this extraordinary tasting featured eleven vintages of Clos des Goisses, including not only renowned vintages such as 1990, 1976, 1964 and 1952, but also wines that demonstrate what the Clos can do in more difficult years, such as 2001 and 1951. As all of these bottles were provided directly from Philipponnat’s cellars, many of them recently disgorged and some of them even in magnum format, it was a rare opportunity. Charles Philipponnat, who was also in attendance, reminded me that it will soon become even rarer, due to the house’s dwindling stock of older vintages.

I took advantage of my London visit to indulge in a stop at Edward Green at 75 Jermyn Street and a leisurely afternoon stroll down nearby Savile Row. Would I rather have a new pair of Edward Green adelaides in antiqued burnt pine or a magnum of ’64 Clos des Goisses? Hmm. I think I’d have to take the Clos des Goisses.

My complete notes on this tasting can be found here.

[Edited 14 Dec 2007 20h27: added link to tasting notes.]

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tasting Together

This was taken on a visit a few weeks ago to Château Thivin in Beaujolais. As my friend Elena said, “It looks like only one of you was spitting!”

The glass on my left is the 1999 Côte de Brouilly; the one on the right is the 1987. Both were lovely – still fresh, vibrant and full of fragrance after eight and 20 years, respectively. No one can say that cru Beaujolais doesn’t age, especially from elite producers such as Claude Geoffray.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Airplanes, Airports and Champagne

At the moment I'm in an Air France lounge awaiting my flight to Paris. The great thing about national pride is that Air France always has champagne at the ready, tonight a very respectable, deliciously pinot-rich Drappier Brut Carte d’Or.

This is a much more interesting wine than the champagne currently being served in the Air France lounge at Charles de Gaulle, the Duval-Leroy Brut Fleur de Champagne. The standards in Paris have been slipping somewhat: a few years ago I remember vintage Laurent-Perrier being offered, then vintage Moët & Chandon. Even earlier this year one could at least drink Duval-Leroy’s vintage-dated Cuvée des Roys. Sigh.

All the same, Air France’s sommelier Olivier Poussier, who was the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde in 2000, hits the right notes with his still wines: Paul Blanck’s elegant Tokay Pinot Gris Furstentum 2001 and Couly-Dutheil’s rich, intensely-flavored Chinon Clos de l’Echo 2002. Once in the air I’ll be stuck drinking Jacquart Brut Mosaïque in economy class, so I’ll enjoy the Drappier while I can.