Monday, September 29, 2008

2008 Diebolt-Vallois

At Diebolt-Vallois this weekend, I chatted with Jacques Diebolt while watching him fill barrels of 2008 Fleur de Passion. Diebolt could hardly hide his excitement about the 2008 vintage: “As soon as we brought the grapes in and pressed this juice,” he said, “I knew that this vintage would be something grand.” The grapes for the Fleur de Passion all came in at over 11 degrees of potential alcohol, with an average acidity of around 8.3 grams per liter. The rest of the estate’s harvest wasn’t too far off from those numbers, with an average maturity of over ten degrees, as well as healthily vibrant acidity thanks to these cool, crisp nights.

Out in the vineyards, most of the grapes have already been picked, but there was a beautiful plot of relatively old vines in Cramant Goutte d’Or that had some remarkable chardonnay grapes still hanging, destined for the Cuvée Prestige. The above photo might owe a little to the dramatic light of the late afternoon, with this ridiculously gorgeous weather that we have for the Champagne harvest, but those grapes really do look that golden, and they taste deliciously sweet—I’m sure they’re over 11 degrees, yet they still retain a firm bite of acidity, and even as grapes they still show the chalky undertone typical of Cramant.

The only problem with this year, really, is the quantity. The estate will average only about 10,000 kilograms per hectare, which is low for Champagne, and a lower yield than that of other people I’ve talked to. Yet due to the quality of the vintage, Diebolt says, “We will try to make the maximum amount of vintage wine this year.” He told me that Patrice Noyelle, director of Pol Roger, compared 2008 to “a compromise between 1995 and 1996,” which Diebolt believes is plausible. “It’s a little like 1988,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a great vintage.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wine of the Week: Michel Loriot Pinot Meunier Vieilles Vignes Brut 2004

Champagnes made of pure meunier are rare, but Michel Loriot makes two: his non-vintage Brut Réserve is 100-percent meunier, as is this wine, an old-vine selection from a vineyard called L’Arpent, in the village of Festigny. Loriot has three separate parcels of vines in this vineyard, planted in 1942, 1962 and 1966. He first bottled them separately in 2002, and having drunk an embarrassingly large quantity of that wine, I’m convinced that it’s one of the finest examples of this grape to be found in the region.

The next version is the 2004, which shows the same sense of old-vine intensity of fruit while also appearing distinctly more graceful. It has a noticeably finer texture, demonstrating a lot of finesse for being pure meunier, and it’s strongly marked by its acidity, framing the bright flavors of fresh cherry, pomelo and quince. There’s a curious note of vanilla on the nose that imitates the smell of oak, although this was made entirely in tank — “It’s to fool Parker,” says Loriot. While this is still adolescent and firmly wound-up right now, it promises to develop extremely well, and at this moment I think it has the quality to even surpass the 2002 that I loved so much.

Also, it’s always a pleasure to drink these wines in Loriot’s tasting room, which looks out over the village of Festigny to the vineyards beyond: L’Arpent, where these old vines of meunier are grown, lies on the mid-slope in the middle portion of that rather Corton-esque promontory that dominates the Vallée du Flagot.

Michel Loriot is brought into the United States by several importers, including Bond Street Imports, Charlotte, NC; Bonhomie Wine Imports, South Orange, NJ; and Charles Neal Selections, Richmond, CA. As the 2004 Vieilles Vignes is only just being released here in France, it’s doubtful that it’s hit the States yet, but it’s definitely a wine to keep your eye out for.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Michel Loriot, Festigny

Earlier this week I went down to Festigny, in the Vallée de la Marne, to see Michel Loriot during the harvest. Festigny lies in the Flagot valley, on a small tributary of the Marne, and while not a lot of people are aware of this little valley’s existence, it produces some of the finest meunier in Champagne. (Krug, in fact, purchases meunier every year from the village of Leuvrigny, an adjacent village in the valley, and considers it to be one of their most important sources for this grape.) Of all the growers in this area, Loriot is undoubtedly the star.

Michel Loriot always reminds me of Raymond Domenech, the manager of the French national football team, only Loriot is much, much better at what he does. Most of Loriot’s vineyards are planted with meunier, as befits the clay soils of the area, and he’s extremely pleased with the 2008 harvest so far. “It’s an excellent year for meunier,” he says. “The grapes are beautiful, without much botrytis, without rot. They are very healthy.” Nearly all of Loriot’s parcels came in at over ten degrees, with the highest being some old-vine meunier picked at 10.8 degrees of potential alcohol, and acidity levels are well over eight grams, closer to nine. In addition, the quantity is surprisingly high, between 12,500 and 13,000 kilograms per hectare on average, which is much higher than the estimates predicted after the difficult flowering earlier in the year. “The grapes gained a lot in September,” says Michel’s wife, Martine. “We expected a smaller yield, but this is a pleasant surprise.”

I happened to be there on the day that they were pressing chardonnay, and while the Loriots are very happy with their chardonnay this year, I think they’d rather have had me take photos of meunier, as it’s more emblematic of the estate. “You know, we do grow some black grapes here as well,” Loriot quipped, after several hours of watching bins of chardonnay come in from the vineyards. The chardonnay was ripe and largely healthy (and delicious as well, rounder and fleshier in flavor than in the Côte des Blancs), with just a few parcels being hit by oidium. “We’re seeing more and more oidium here,” says Martine Loriot. “It’s due to climate change. Normally oidium is a disease found in the south of France.” She notes that this year they’ve had problems in Provence with mildew, which further demonstrates just how inverted the world is right now.

We did make it out to the vines in the afternoon to look at some meunier. Loriot makes a pure meunier from 40- to 60-year old vines in Festigny, and while the vineyard had already been picked last week, we managed to find a few hidden grapes that had evaded capture. Tasting those against the young-vine fruit being picked in the photo above, it was amazing at how much more resonant and complex the flavors were even just as grapes. Once back in the cellar, I tasted that old-vine fruit as partially-fermented must, comparing it with a couple of other meunier samples, and again the difference was markedly pronounced. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished wine in another four or five years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More Harvest Photos

I spent the weekend poking around more cellars, checking out the results of the harvest. The weather was absolutely gorgeous this weekend, even if it did get a little nippy. Only in Champagne can it be 20 degrees (almost 70°F), brightly sunny, with a clear blue sky, yet you’re still left wishing you brought along a thicker sweater.

At Jean Milan in Oger, Henry-Pol Milan told me that the ripeness was pleasantly high, averaging about 10 to 10.2 degrees of potential alcohol, with a total acidity of a little over 8 grams per liter, which is just about classic. In addition, the quantity was healthy as well, and he’s predicting an average of about 14,000 kilograms per hectare for this harvest. “Last year we had a lot of quantity,” he said, “but this year combines both quantity and quality.”

Up in Verzenay, in the Montagne de Reims, Jean-Luc Lallement reported similar numbers: an average of about 10 degrees alcohol and total acidity around 8.8 or 8.9. The yield was smaller, as he grows mostly pinot noir, and he estimates around 12,500 kilos on average, with the most stingy parcels giving about 7,000 kilos per hectare. Lallement started picking on the 16th, and will probably continue through next weekend. “There’s plenty of sun, and the grapes are continuing to rise in sugar,” he says.

A quiet moment before the harvest in Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses—the netting at the left is there to catch people if they slip and fall (and this isn’t even the steepest part)

Pressing chardonnay at Champagne Jean Milan

Victor and Louis, the future generation of winemaking at Champagne Jean Lallement in Verzenay

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Le Vendange Chez Louis Roederer

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer, invited me to join him on Friday for a peek at Roederer’s presshouses in Aÿ and Avize during the harvest. Roederer owns 214 hectares of vines in the Côte des Blancs, the Grande Vallée de la Marne and the Montagne de Reims, and they also press about 50 additional hectares of grapes purchased from various growers. Each of Roederer’s parcels, as well as most of the growers’ parcels, if they are of sufficient size, are not only pressed separately but vinified separately as well, meaning that the entire operation has to be very highly organized from start to finish.

So far, Lecaillon is extremely pleased with 2008. “I am very confident and relaxed about this vintage,” he says. “We’ve had warm days, around 20 degrees in the afternoon, which allows for sufficient ripening of the grapes, and the nights have been cool, preventing the spread of rot. The cool nights are like natural refrigeration, keeping the grapes healthy and stable. This morning it was down to four degrees, which was perfect for the grapes.”

Lecaillon typically schedules the harvest over about 12 to 14 days, collecting data from each parcel to determine the optimum picking time. “In deciding when to pick,” he says, “I look for two factors: sugar, for the ripeness, and malic acidity, which we want to be present but not too high, as we typically don’t allow the malolactic in our wines. Ideally you want a balance of these two things. This year we are perfectly on target, with sugar around 10.5 degrees on average, and malic acidity around 4.5 to five in Aÿ and maybe 5.5 in Avize.”

Roederer uses traditional Coquard vertical presses to press their pinot noir in Aÿ, and in fact the work is nearly identical to what I saw at René Geoffroy the other day, except that here there are five presses instead of two, three forklifts instead of one, and maybe three or four times as many people involved. There’s a sense of urgency as the grapes come in, as the goal is to get them into the press as rapidly as possible in order to prevent oxidation, and so the forklifts fly madly about to shuttle the pallets in, while other people toss the bins into the presses as quickly as they can. At this facility they press all of the Roederer pinot noir from Cumières to Bouzy, and after the must has settled for 15 to 24 hours, the juice is sent to the cellars in Reims for fermentation.

The house’s 80 hectares of Côte des Blancs chardonnay are pressed in Avize, which has a distinctly different atmosphere. Here there are also five presses, but they are modern, pneumatic ones rather than the old traditional type, due to the different requirements for pressing chardonnay. “Pinot noir needs to be pressed very slowly and very gently,” says Lecaillon, “and for that we always use a vertical press. But chardonnay needs a more dynamic pressing.” Although he explained why, the reason for this only became clear to me upon actually putting the grapes into my mouth. The skins of pinot noir are slightly thicker, and the pulp juicier: when you bite into a pinot noir grape, the juice readily explodes into your mouth. Chardonnay, on the other hand, has a firmer, more textural pulp, and feels more pulpy than juicy. You have to work just slightly harder to extract the juice in your mouth, and so it makes sense that it would fare better with a different type of press, too.

Roederer is scrupulous about cataloguing each and every bin of grapes that comes through the presshouse. Upon arriving, each pallet of grapes is weighed and analyzed for potential alcohol and acidity, and given one of three ratings: Beau, Standard or Inférieur. This is done for Roederer’s grapes as well as those of the growers, and after the harvest Lecaillon will pay a bonus to those growers who achieved exceptionally high quality, rewarding those who opted for quality over sheer quantity. Ideally, he looks for an average potential alcohol of slightly over ten degrees, and this was largely achieved this year, which is surprising to me considering the lousy weather we had over the summer.

We had a leisurely lunch at the presshouse in Avize (and yes, I am a disgustingly lucky bastard, as that is a bottle of the rare and unbelievably sublime 2002 Cristal Rosé that he is opening for us to drink in this photo), and then took a drive around the area to look at some vineyards. “We believe up until now that this is more of a pinot noir year,” says Lecaillon. “The chardonnay is nice, but a little behind.” At the same time, he’s been very pleased with selected parcels of chardonnay as well. “I’m wondering if the Avize will be the best this year,” he says. “There’s a beautiful acidity in the Avize, and a very good balance.” I could have shown you photos of Roederer’s biodynamically-grown vines in Les Robarts in Avize, or of beautifully healthy and tasty chardonnay grapes in Le Mesnil Monts Martin. It would have been great to include photos of Bonotte-Pierre-Robert in Aÿ, another biodynamic parcel that is used to make Cristal Rosé, and of the tiny, concentrated pinot noir berries there that pop in your mouth with deliciously elegant and vibrant flavor (and that really do taste like Cristal). But because I am an idiot, I forgot to recharge the batteries in my camera the night before, and so my camera rendered itself completely useless shortly after taking the photo below, of one of Roederer’s harvesting teams in Chemin de Châlons in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Roederer has a third presshouse in Verzenay, which is used to press their grapes from the northern Montagne de Reims, but Lecaillon chose to wait until this weekend to begin picking there, even though the official start date for Verzenay was Thursday. The grapes are healthy and are continuing to increase in sugar, and with our gorgeous weather right now he can afford to be calm. “History shows that you gain more often by waiting than by starting too early,” he says. “We don’t have to rush.”

Saturday, September 20, 2008

John Lobb Giono, 8896 Last, Size 8E

I spent the day yesterday with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer, at Roederer’s presshouses in Aÿ and Avize. While waiting for Jean-Baptiste to arrive from Reims, I snapped some hasty photos amidst the hubbub of activity surrounding the presses, trying not to get caught underfoot and feeling a little like J. Peterman, à la Seinfeld:

“There I was, in the midst of harvest, dodging forklifts and watching the fruit of countless man-hours of labor fly by at breathtaking speeds. The ground was sticky with the mangled carcasses of grapes not fortunate enough to make it into the press, thereby tragically missing out on their ordained destinies. A man loudly honked his horn at me, demanding my hasty retreat; another came towards me with a hose, seeming to spray water about indiscriminately in an attempt to clear the floors of detritus and the desiccated skeletons of unfulfilled pinot noir. It was chaos.

Thankfully, I was wearing my three-eyelet, Chukka-styled ankle boots by John Lobb, made of highly-polished, dark brown calfskin and built on the rugged yet shapely 8896 last. Thoughtfully double-soled with 3.5-mm rubber rather than the customary leather, they allowed me to nimbly evade the obstacles in my path, keeping my feet dry through the ubiquitous puddles of water while remaining elegant and stylish.”

More about my Roederer visit tomorrow.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wine of the Week: Didier Dagueneau Silex Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2006

I had a champagne already written up for this week, but tonight I decided to open the 2006 Silex. It’s the only bottle I have (and after Wednesday, the only one I’m ever likely to get), and it needs many more years in the cellar to show it’s best, but tonight seems as appropriate a time as any to drink it.

Drinking Silex (or Pur Sang, or Buisson Renard, or even the Blanc Fumé or the old En Chailloux, for that matter, not to mention Asteroïde) is an original experience. It could maybe sometimes be recognizably sauvignon, yet in a sense it’s really anti-varietal, it’s sauvignon character subservient to its expression of terroir. The nose of this 2006 is pure minerality: flinty, smoky, assertive, haughty in the way it combines its deeply expressive aroma with a refined, multi-dimensional sense of finesse. I put it in a decanter and a half hour later it reveals a sleekly apricotty, citrusy fruit character, while still markedly infused by that pungent stoniness. On the palate it’s intensely concentrated yet it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster; its power is controlled and focused, its energy harnessed and purposeful, all the while constantly referring back to that deep, profoundly demanding sense of soil. Despite its obvious richness it remains bright and lively, aérien, as the French would say, and the finish is almost painful in its beauty, with a palate-staining depth and a vivid, complex, nearly three-dimensional fragrance that never seems to quit. My friend Eric once said, of a completely different wine in a completely different time, “The finish itself has a front end and a back end,” and that’s the way I feel about this Silex.

I tasted this wine in barrel in February of 2007, which was the last time that I saw Dagueneau. Looking at my notes for the Silex, I wrote at the time: “These ’06s are amazing. Where the Pur Sang is deep and brooding, this ascends, with chalky brightness and superb length.” This was before he opened the 2005s, which were absolutely mind-blowing. Both the 2005 and 2006 vintages were great ones for Dagueneau, but they express themselves in different ways, with 2005 showing more prominent acidity and a silky, almost ethereal perfume; 2006, in contrast, is a little richer and more densely knit.

The things I’ll remember about Didier Dagueneau are his generosity, his warm hospitality, the way that he would patiently spend a whole afternoon with me tasting wines and explaining them in minute detail even back before we ever knew each other. The first time I ever met him was ten years ago on a grey, rainy spring day, when I was essentially backpacking my way through the Loire. I was nobody (I’m still nobody) and he was a veritable rock star, a world-famous icon of a vigneron, yet he welcomed me into his home as if I were an old friend. He laughed when I showed up like a wet cat on his doorstep, bedraggled and soaked, and after giving me a towel, proceeded to dazzle me over the next few hours with a vast, multi-vintage array of sauvignons, the likes of which I’d never tasted before. He had some pressing engagements that afternoon, yet he insisted on driving me to my next appointment all the way across the river in Bué, even taking time to stop along the way to show me some vineyards. I’ve never forgotten that day, even though there would be others to come. I’ll certainly never forget him.

Didier Dagueneau

I was stunned to hear the news of Didier Dagueneau’s death in a flying accident. Dagueneau made intense, iconoclastic wines like nobody else in the world, and he will be sorely missed. Visits to his cellars in St-Andelain have always been some of the highlights of my Loire journeys over the years, and my thoughts are with his family in this sad time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Le Vendange Chez René Geoffroy

I stopped in to see Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy today in his new digs in Aÿ. This is the first harvest in his new cellar, which is palatial compared to his old place in Cumières. The winery is built on three levels—two traditional Coquard vertical presses on the top level, tanks for débourbage on the middle level, fermentation tanks on the bottom floor—plus there are two additional levels of storage cellars below. “It’s much bigger, I can consolidate everything in one place, plus I can work entirely by gravity,” says Jean-Baptiste. “In terms of quality, it will be a significant improvement.”

Lots of stuff going on today—some saignée rosé macerating away, some old-vine pinot noir getting destemmed for making red Coteaux Champenois, a little chardonnay being put into barrel for fermentation. I even witnessed the birth of a new cuvée: Jean-Baptiste has a 38-are parcel co-planted with five different varieties, à la Marcel Deiss, and this is the first year that he’s had enough grapes to fill a press.

Jean-Baptiste checking on a vat of meunier—it doesn’t look so appetizing now, but someday it will taste good

Pinot noir grapes in the courtyard

This is how saignée rosé starts its life

Filling the press

Co-plantation in all its glory: chardonnay, pinot noir, meunier, arbanne & petit meslier

The retrousse

Destemmed pinot, destined for pigeage

Putting barrels in place

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Height of Geekiness

So if you’re really into champagne, you might have learned that contrary to popular belief, it is not always made out of only three grape varieties. You might even have tasted some champagnes made out of “other” grapes, like Aubry’s La Nombre d’Or or Moutard’s Cuvée des 6 Cépages. If you’re a diehard devotee, willing to brave frigid Champenois Februarys and expend the effort to taste vins clairs at the right addresses, you might even be lucky enough to taste some still wines made from these forgotten varieties.

Yesterday, however, I ventured into a realm that I had never previously before imagined. Out with Benoît Tarlant on a pre-harvest survey of Oeuilly’s vineyards, I had the opportunity to taste actual grapes, not only of pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay (including the ungrafted chardonnay from 50-year old vines used for La Vigne d’Antan), but of petit meslier, arbanne and pinot blanc.

About eight or nine years ago, Tarlant attempted to expand his 0.4-hectare parcel of ungrafted chardonnay in the vineyard of Les Sables in Oeuilly. Unfortunately, the young vines were planted in soil that wasn’t as sandy as the other portion, and as a result they were struck by phylloxera only two years later. Upon pulling up these vines, Benoît decided to replace them with several of the old varieties, “to get revenge,” as he puts it.

Today he has five rows of each of these three grape varieties. Petit meslier hangs in relatively loosely-packed bunches, and takes a long time to ripen. To me, it has the most unique aroma of any variety in Champagne. The grapes yesterday, which are still a few days away from full maturity, tasted like some crazy Japanese melon candy, with plenty of acidity and a fragrant perfume. The arbanne grapes also had very tart acidity, more pronounced than in any of the three common varieties, but the flavors were darker and spicier, almost reminiscent of green peppercorns. Arbanne can be recognized by the jagged edges on its leaves, as seen in the above photograph. Pinot blanc hangs in big, fat bunches that are very compacted together, and the leaves are huge. I found the grapes sort of appley in flavor and more overtly fruity, with more of a pronounced texture.

I don’t know what Benoît is planning to do with these. I don’t think there’s enough quantity to bottle each of them separately. Last year he blended them all together and the vin clair was pretty good, with a spicy, exotic aroma and a waxy richness. I’m looking forward to seeing the 2008 version.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Erratic Weather, Delicious Poulsard and a 250/280-gram Midnight Blue Bengaline Weave

The weather has been a little temperamental at the start of this year’s champagne harvest. It was close to 30 degrees (86°F) on Thursday, but more like 14 degrees (57°F) on Friday after a freak thunderstorm Thursday night. My neighbor told me that some of her friends even had localized incidences of hail in their vineyards, which is devastating at this time of year. Saturday was dreary and damp, with a steady rain falling the whole day. It turned sunny yesterday and it was vaguely sunny again today, although the afternoon was quite grey. Apparently this is perfectly normal for Champagne, as nobody seems very concerned. Also, the cold nights and cool mornings are good after the rains, as this prevents the spread of rot.

Besides fretting about the weather, I drank a lovely, old-vine poulsard from Julien Labet last night: you might well ask why I wasn’t drinking champagne, but this wine’s silkiness and vibrancy of fruit would seduce anyone: loaded with fresh berry flavors, it has a lovely, supple texture that makes you just want to drink more of it.

In the meantime, I broke down today and bought five meters of cloth — the legendary J & J Minnis is closing out their Rangoon book for some inexplicable reason, and as I’ve been wanting to make up a summer-weight suit from Rangoon for some time, it’s my last chance to do so. Anyway, at a mere £16 a meter, you can’t possibly go wrong. I’m hoping it’ll wind up as a quarter-lined, 6x2 double-breasted, for those summer evenings when one is compelled to appear elegant. Now if I can just figure out how to fund the next part....

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wine of the Week: Jean Lallement Brut Grand Cru

Jean Lallement is my favorite producer in Verzenay. I like growers such as Péhu, Arnould, Godmé and Hatté, but there’s something about Lallement’s wines that resonates with me, and I find them to consistently be the finest in tone and purest in expression.

To pick at nits, Jean-Luc Lallement’s wines aren’t really 100-percent Verzenay, as he has some vines just over the border in Verzy. But he says the terroir is virtually identical. I tasted the new brut sans année yesterday, blended from 2005 and 2004: as always, it’s composed of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay, all fermented in enameled steel vats. The ripeness of the 2005 vintage gives this a sweetly succulent depth of cherry and raspberry fruitiness, yet the taut structure and firm, darkly spicy minerality is pure Verzenay, reining in the flavors and keeping them focused and sleek. It’s full in aroma and remarkably fine in texture, demonstrating outstanding quality for a basic non-vintage brut.

Lallement is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Brut Grand Cru is $60.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


A freak Champenois lightning storm tonight had me mesmerized — I’ve never seen such copious or continuous lightning before. There must have been uninterrupted lightning for at least half an hour, maybe longer. I grew up on the West Coast of the United States, where they haven’t got such things. I was so entranced that I actually used my little pocket camera to take a video, which of course doesn’t come remotely close to doing justice to the real thing. Instead of using up bandwidth to inflict this masterpiece of cinema on you, I’m showing you a still from it instead. I understand that those of you who live in Kansas or some such location might find it commonplace. But I enjoyed watching the display.

Anyway, I can assure you that my video was not the most boring one in the world. The world’s most boring video was one that I took in Japan of saké fermenting in a vat. I could show you that one if you’d like.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Harvest is Almost Here

The champagne harvest is going to start in a few days. At last, a “normal” mid-September harvest! (Last year’s harvest began on 23 August, yet only a generation ago, harvest was typically in October.) As with all areas of France, the starting date is strictly controlled by the authorities, who determine when each village can begin picking each variety. Many thanks to Francis Boulard of Champagne Raymond Boulard, who posted this schedule of the official starting dates for 2008 on his blog, from CIVC info given to the newspaper L’Union. Most growers are starting next week, but meunier in Cumières (one of the warmest villages in Champagne) can be picked as early as this Saturday.

The overall quality is still uncertain as the weather continues to be erratic, but the quantity is definitely going to be below average, thanks to a cool flowering and uneven fruit set. Meunier in particular is going to be relatively low-yielding. People are reporting that the grapes are healthy, however, which is a relief after such a damp and mildewy summer.

I snapped some pre-harvest photos today as I was out and about:

Pinot noir grapes in Petits Cintres, in the Clos des Goisses

Le Cognet Robert in Aÿ (that’s Bollinger’s Côte aux Enfants in the background)

Chardonnay vines in Cumières Les Crayères

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

France is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: I love France, and it’s a pleasure to live here. But I think that many people (including the French themselves) have a romanticized view of France as some kind of gastronomic paradise where everyone automatically buys the freshest organic produce grown only a few kilometers away, and the healthiest farm-raised meats from animals lovingly hand-fed by some guy named Jacques who knows them all by name, and on every street corner there’s a rustic, artisanal boulangerie selling baguettes so glorious that they will bring you to tears.

That may once have been so, and there may still be localized areas where life continues in the same fashion, but the reality today is that in much of France the food is no better than it is in the United States, and in fact, it can often be distinctly worse. I thought about this yesterday, my first full day back from New York City, as I was shopping at my local Champenois supermarket attempting to find something at least marginally appetizing to eat for lunch. This depressing activity brought to mind the immortal words of my wonderfully outspoken, 78-year old landlady, who once said as we were out shopping together and struggling in vain to find an edible tomato, “On vend toute la merde ici,” or, loosely translated, “Everything they sell here is shit.”

Now, my views are certainly colored by the fact that I live in Champagne, which aside from possessing an abundance of grape vines, is not a land of natural bounty. (They might be improved if I lived in, say, the middle of the Loire Valley, or next to Les Halles in Lyon.) My views are also colored by the fact that on my last day in New York I had lunch at Franny’s in Park Slope, which is just about my idea of a perfect restaurant, and which is certainly one of my very favorite restaurants in all of NYC.

Committed to supporting sustainable and seasonable agriculture as well as creating an environmentally friendly business, Franny’s buys all of their produce, meats and fish from sustainable and organic sources, and locally wherever possible. They also extend their ideas of sustainability to other areas of their business: energy, for example, comes from wind and hydroelectric power; paper products and containers are made from recycled and biodegradable materials; and kitchen grease is converted into biodiesel fuel. You’ll find all of this and more, including specific sources of various products, listed on the back of their menu. But as cool as all of that is, that isn’t the reason I like Franny’s. I like Franny’s because the food is damn good.

A salad of dandelion greens, crisp guanciale and fresh nectarines was sublime, each element playing off of the next, with the whole infused by porky goodness. Summer squash with pinenuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano was as simple as it sounds, yet when each ingredient is itself perfect, the combination is elevated into something magical. A lot of things at Franny’s are like that: the philosophy here emphasizes less rather than more, seeking to highlight the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Simplicity creates its own profundity. A crostino of house-cured pancetta and scallion butter sounds mundane, nearly banal on the menu, but put it into your mouth and you’ll want to order another. We must have eaten half of the menu, finishing with a plate of heirloom tomatoes from Maxwell’s Farm that was more sweetly satisfying than any dessert I could imagine—in fact, I’m too depressed to buy another tomato for the next twelve months, just because of those extraordinary examples from Bill Maxwell.

Not to get all “America! Fuck Yeah!”, but I often sense that Europeans don’t hold American gastronomy in very high esteem. Of course, we can hardly blame them, considering that we shape their views by exporting such atrocities as McDonald’s, KFC and Starbuck’s. But today when I visit American cities such as San Francisco, New York, Portland or Seattle, I find a gastronomic sensibility and cultural consciousness that equals or surpasses much of what is here in France. People are more aware about food, and care much more about where it comes from. Beyond that, there is a much greater diversity of food in America than in France, and so more people know what to do with the ingredients (especially esoteric ones) once they are actually able to procure them. I realize that I am speaking only about a small cross-section of the population, but I am increasingly finding that this cross-section is significantly larger in the United States than it is in France, and it is continuing to grow quite happily and healthily. A cynic might remark that this comes out of necessity, as eating in America has grown so dire that one is now forced to pay careful attention to one’s food in order to survive, but that doesn’t really matter to me as long as organic farms and urban greenmarkets and locavore restaurants continue to exist.

I would rather eat at Franny’s than at any restaurant anywhere in Champagne, and honestly, I’d prefer Franny’s to many, many restaurants in Paris. What many people, even Americans, don’t realize is that the United States (at least the blue part of it) is one of the best places in the world to eat in.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wine of the Week: Vouette et Sorbée Extra Brut Blanc d’Argile 2005

Last weekend I had the privilege of dining with brooklynguy and brooklynlady in their beautiful brooklynhome. Brooklynguy, if you haven’t noticed from reading his blog, is a fantastic cook, and it was wonderful to spend some time with them out on their patio on a cool summer evening.

We drank many lovely bottles that night, among them the 2005 Blanc d’Argile by Bertrand Gautherot, of Vouette et Sorbée. One of Champagne’s hottest cult producers at the moment, Vouette et Sorbée is named for two vineyards on the property (Vouette and Sorbée, appropriately). Gautherot farms the entire estate biodynamically, ferments with natural yeasts and vinifies all of his wines in barrel, creating wines of intense purity and expression. He makes three different wines: Fidèle, which is the main cuvée, made from pinot noir grown on Kimmeridgian soils; Saignée de Sorbée, which is a saignée of pinot noir from the Portlandian soils of the Sorbée vineyard; and this chardonnay called Blanc d’Argile, which actually doesn’t come from either Vouette or Sorbée but another vineyard called Bas des Biaunes, which also lies on Kimmeridgian clay.

The wines are not vintage-dated, as they don’t spend enough time on their lees to qualify, but there’s a code on the label that reads R05, indicating the year of harvest. The Blanc d’Argile is a rich, powerfully vinous wine, needing decanting to open up its flavors and bring the components into balance. It’s full and ample in body yet it also feels energetic and tense, as if coiled and ready to pounce at any moment. There are some notes of fresh caramel and torrefaction on the nose that give way to more primary aromas of stone fruit and fresh apple as this opens up, and the virile richness is firmly underlined by an intense minerality that’s very unlike the Côte des Blancs — Gautherot lives in Buxières-sur-Arce in the Aube, and the Kimmeridgian soils here bear more of a resemblance to Chablis than to the Marne. I would love to see this wine with more bottle age, but unfortunately this was my last bottle: I’ll have to remember to put away more bottles of the next vintage.

Vouette et Sorbée is not currently available in the United States, but there are a few importers who will be working with his wines starting with the next release, including Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York, NY and Triage Wines, Seattle, WA.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ippudo NYC

I finally made it to the New York City branch of Ippudo, the Hakata-style ramen shop. Having been to the one in the Ebisu district of Tokyo (as seen in this post), I was looking forward to seeing what the NYC version would be like.

I enjoyed it very much, although it’s not really the same thing. To begin with, the decor is wildly different: the NYC shop is much more upscale, with a sleekly modern feel. My first visit was on Monday, and even at around 2:30pm, it took about half an hour to get a seat. It was well worth the wait, however, as the akamaru ramen turned out to be the finest bowl of ramen that I have ever eaten in Manhattan. The broth didn’t seem quite as porky or as intense as I remembered from Tokyo, but the noodles themselves were outstanding, with a perfectly silky yet toothsome texture. The roasted Berkshire pork was absolutely, stunningly god-like, boasting a meltingly decadent succulence and sweetly caramelized exterior. I happily emptied the entire bowl. My only complaints were that 1.) there were only two small chunks of that sublime, mind-altering pork, which made me immediately regret not getting the extra chashu option for an additional three dollars; 2.) there is no gyoza on the menu, which just seems wrong; and 3.) you don’t get the array of condiments on the table that you do in Japan (pickled ginger, pickled tanaka and spicy beansprouts, plus garlic cloves that you press yourself). Nevertheless, I was very impressed overall, and thrilled about this addition to the Manhattan ramen scene.

Still dreaming about that bowl, I returned last night to re-experience the glory. Although akamaru was what I really wanted, I decided to get the shiromaru just to try it, and remembering the paucity of meat in my previous bowl, I opted for the addition of pork belly. (After all, how could anything not be improved by the addition of pork belly?) It turned out to be excellent, but it didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of my original bowl. The broth was actually better — deeper in flavor, more complex — but the chashu pork wasn’t nearly as great, and the noodles were a little overdone. I think it would definitely be worth asking for the noodles to be a little firmer (there are specific words for that which momentarily escape me, but I’m sure that one of you will remind me), especially since, if you’re a painfully slow eater like me, they continue to cook further as they sit in the hot broth. I still enjoyed it tremendously, although if I could have my way, I would have had akamaru with Wednesday’s broth and Monday’s noodles and pork. Plus extra chashu or pork belly, of course. The pork belly was damn tasty.

I still cling to my verdict that Ippudo is the best ramen in Manhattan. Ramen Setagaya is good, although the chashumen that I had there last week was slightly disappointing compared to, say, the first five times I ever went there after it opened in the East Village (saltier, less complex broth this time, and somehow less of a harmony of components). I do have a soft spot for Rai Rai Ken, especially the shoyu broth, but it’s a more rustic ramen, not as refined or as detailed as Setagaya or Ippudo. Ippudo is really where I want to go. I’ve heard people complain about the $13 price tag for a bowl of ramen, but come on, it’s New York City, for crying out loud. There are so many more unsatisfying ways that you can lose $13 in this city that it seems completely irrelevant to me. And anyway, it’s still far cheaper than a plane to Tokyo.

Ippudo, 65 Fourth Avenue, NYC (between E. 9th and 10th)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Importance of Being Fit

It might sound strange and decadent, but tasting wine professionally is actually quite physically challenging. When I’m here at Wine & Spirits, I usually taste between 80 and 120 wines per day, all of which have ragingly high acidity and many of which contain some quantity of residual sugar. It sounds great, but wait until you’ve done that five days in a row.

I was thinking yesterday how important it is to keep in shape if one is going to be tasting so rigorously. It’s pretty obvious when tasting vast quantities of wine that the healthier you are, the better your ability to taste becomes. Equally importantly, you are able to taste a larger quantity, which becomes important in this profession.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t thinking about this while out running 10k, or working out in the gym. I was getting a massage. But to my credit, it wasn’t some wimpy feel-good massage. It was a deep-tissue acupressure massage by an old Chinese woman who could quite obviously break my neck with one hand if she really wanted to. And it was much, much more painful than running 10k.

I am a firm believer in the value of massage therapy, not only for muscular treatment but, in the language of Chinese medical theory, to keep the meridians of the body open and promote the proper circulation of qi energy throughout the body. The reason my massage yesterday was so excruciatingly painful was that I haven’t been maintaining my physical health, and my qi has been blocked and disrupted. That’s something that champagne alone can’t fix.