Monday, March 31, 2008

Lost In Translation

The Japanese have a particularly wonderful and unique way of wielding the English language. I was looking through my photos from Japan and loved this one, of a sign posted outside one of the many restaurants in a shopping complex near the Tokyo Station. It’s superb. I think this ought to be the official motto of my blog.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dégorgement à la Volée

It’s a rare pleasure to be able to drink a bottle of champagne disgorged on the spot. This is only possible with bottles that are stored sur pointe: the bottles have already been riddled but not yet disgorged, and so are stored upside down with the sediment collected at the neck. Bottles that are stored sur pointe remain marvelously fresh for a very long time, partly because the lees, which are a natural antioxidant, are still in the bottle, and partly because the wine has never been exposed to the oxidative shock of disgorgement.

Disgorging by hand does require a bit of skill. As you slowly turn the bottle upright, the bubble of air trapped inside rises towards the neck. The idea is to remove the crown cap at the moment when the bubble is in the neck but below the sediment. Too early, and you lose a large volume of wine; too late, and the sediment falls back into the bottle, leaving you with cloudy wine.

Here’s a video of Jean-François Clouet, proprietor of Champagne André Clouet in Bouzy, disgorging a bottle of vintage 1995 for us to drink a couple of nights ago.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Wine of the Week: Franck Pascal Extra Brut Cuvée de Réserve

Since I am in the fortunate position of being able to drink lots of champagne (by virtue of proximity and profession, definitely not because of financial abundance), I thought I’d start sharing some comments on specific wines.

I’ll start with Franck Pascal’s Cuvée de Réserve. Franck Pascal is one of my favorite up-and-coming stars in Champagne, and has recently been developing something of a cult following amongst champagne cognoscenti. The problem is that he only has 3.5 hectares of vines and there’s not much wine to go around! Located in the village of Baslieux-sur-Châtillon, which is on the northern side of the Vallée de la Marne, Pascal grows mostly meunier, which is suited to these clay-dominated soils. The viticulture is entirely biodynamic and the vinification is all in tank, as he doesn’t like using wood for wines from clay soils. Pascal’s wines are always extremely vinous and tightly wound, needing some time in the glass to emerge. If you’re a fan of decanting champagne, these are good candidates.

The Cuvée de Réserve comes in two incarnations: the Brut Nature, which is of course non-dosé; and the Extra Brut, which is dosed at six grams per liter. I love them both, and I think that both are balanced in their respective ways (which is not always the case with a wine that sees different dosage levels). This photo is of a bottle of the Brut Nature that I drank recently, but since the Extra Brut is the one available in the States, that’s what you get to hear about. Made of 90 percent meunier, with the rest split between chardonnay and pinot noir, this shows a deeply vinous intensity and harmonious balance, its sweet apple and exotic citrus notes backed by aromas of ginger and clove. There’s a sappy depth on the mid-palate and a rich texture that grows even richer with air, while the finish is firm and lively, with a lingering sense of soil. It’s a champagne for those who like their champagnes to taste grown rather than made, and who believe that champagne is as driven by terroir as any other wine. Franck Pascal’s wines are imported into the United States by Jon-David Headrick Selections in Chapel Hill, NC, and the suggested retail price for the Extra Brut is $50.

I’ll post another wine next Friday. My friend Barbara thinks anything called “of the Week” ought to come out on a Monday. But I think nobody drinks on Mondays. I mean, I drink on Mondays. Barbara drinks on Mondays. Do you? Anyway, it’ll be on Friday.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Terroir of Mailly-Champagne

Finally, a post that’s actually about champagne! I spent yesterday morning in the village of Mailly, tasting vins clairs with Hervé Dantan, chef de cave of Mailly Grand Cru. (It’s potentially confusing—Mailly, or Mailly-Champagne, as it’s officially known, is the name of the village, while Mailly Grand Cru is the name of a producer.) Mailly lies on the northern side of the Montagne de Reims, and like its famous neighbors Verzenay and Verzy it’s primarily known for pinot noir, although since 1972 its chardonnay has also been classified as grand cru.

In a lineup of about 15 vins clairs, the most intriguing portion was a series of 2007 pinot noirs from four different lieux-dits in Mailly. Les Chalois, on the border with Verzenay, shows classic notes of spicy black cherry and iron-like minerality typical of the northern Montagne de Reims. Adjacent to Les Chalois, Les Côtes is unusual for this area in that its slope faces south, creating a wine of round, ample ripeness and richly fruity depth. Les Monts de Gélus, from a steep, north-facing slope on the western side of the village, is the opposite in character: all about structure and acidity, with a steely vivacity and zero body fat. Finally, Les Godats is the most lithe and overtly minerally of all of these, coming from the northern sector of the village where the soil is poor and chalky.

Naturally, all of these will be blended into various cuvées, and we won’t see any of them as finished champagnes. So what’s the point of tasting these? Well, beyond merely satisfying my curiosity, I think that it serves to demonstrate how hazardous it is to generalize about village character in Champagne. What is the character of Mailly? Is it Monts de Gélus? Or Les Côtes? One can draw commonalities between the various sectors, but at the same time, it’s a myth that the village is the lowest common denominator in Champagne. What many people forget is that even a so-called mono-cru champagne is the product of a blend.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

There and Back Again

When I left Tokyo it was a balmy 18ºC (65ºF) and the cherry blossoms were coming out. Back home in Dizy it’s cold and dreary. It seems apt for my mood, as I’m experiencing a sort of culture shock in reverse. Compared to Tokyo, Paris is dirty, nothing works properly and people are pushy. There are no vending machines. And after two weeks of the Shinkansen (or anything JR for that matter), SNCF appears inefficient, uncomfortable and slow. To top it all off, I was walking through the grungy, grimy Gare de l’Est and was nearly hit by a flying pigeon on my way to the ticket office. A pigeon! I thought to myself, the Japanese must come to Europe and think it’s the Third World.

Oh well. At least we have champagne.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Katsuobushi, or, My Quest for Bonito

Katsuobushi, or dried bonito, is a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, in the West we can only get it in flakes—it’s still delicious, but it’s a bit like using pre-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of getting a proper chunk off of the wheel. One of my missions in Japan was to find the real thing. Hearing of my quest (and thinking that I was perhaps ever so slightly weird), my friend Tetsuo-san arranged for us to visit a shop in his neighborhood in Yokohama, Nagano Katsuobushi Ten.

To the uninitiated, katsuobushi might not even look like fish. It might be mistaken for, say, a stick. Or a rock. But no, it’s really tuna (skipjack tuna, to be precise). At a typical katsuobushi shop, you’ll see a wide variety for sale, ranging in price from around ¥1,500 a kilo to over ¥5,000. Mr. Shigekazu Ichinose (pictured), proprietor of Nagano Katsuobushi Ten, explains that this is due to different grades of fish—the best fish for making katsuobushi is young tuna that has a final water content of around ten to 15 percent; lower grades have a higher content of both water and oil. Each piece represents one-quarter of a fish, so there are two pieces from the back and two from the belly. Since the belly has a higher fat content, it produces lesser-quality katsuobushi.

The process of drying the fish requires a total of five to six months. After the fish is caught and gutted, it’s boiled to activate certain bacteria and enzymes in the flesh, then dried in the sun. The boiling and drying process is repeated several times, and then the fish is steamed together with a wood called narakunugi-sakurazai, which imparts a subtle aroma. At this point the fish is called harakabushi, which is mildly scary-looking, as you can see in this photo. Harakabushi can be eaten as is, in udon or soba, and in fact, a similar product is found in other areas along the tuna’s migratory route, such as Papua New Guinea and the Maldive Islands. Only the Japanese, however, age it further to make katsuobushi, which has a more refined and complex flavor.

To achieve this, the harakabushi is aged in high-humidity storage so that it develops a fine mold, which Ichinose-san compares to the bloomy rind on cheese. It’s periodically taken out, dried and placed back into storage, and eventually it ends up looking like the examples in this photo. Sometimes you’ll see it with more mold, and sometimes it’s sold with the mold wiped off, but Ichinose-san says that the mold on the best katsuobushi is very fine and thin. Here are two examples of top-grade katsuobushi: the piece on the right is from the back, while the piece on the left, with a shallow depression running along the length of it where it was gutted, is from the belly.

The piece that he selected for me (from the back, of course) was long and straight—apparently the straight ones are better than the curvy ones, but I don’t know whether this is because it’s easier to shave or for some other qualitative reason. To use it, I imagine that one could employ a truffle shaver or some other similar implement. However, the proper tool is called a katsuobushi-kezuriki, which I was able to purchase from his friend down the street. It’s a box fitted with a sturdy blade that looks like a carpenter’s plane—you hold the katsuobushi lengthwise and shave micro-thin slices that fall down into the drawer below. The thickness and width of the slices can be adjusted according to how much pressure you apply. Now if I can just find a bit of grand cru kombu, or dried kelp, I can become a dashi-making fiend....

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Tsukiji market, and finally managed to make it happen this week. All of the stories you’ve ever heard are true. It’s as vast, as vivid, as awe-inspiring and as completely insane as everybody says it is. Just getting to the market itself is a bit hazardous, as the roadways and parking lots immediately surrounding it are awash with a motley and multitudinous assortment of wildly careening vehicles hastily transporting fish to, well, wherever they’re transporting them to. With no clear path to my goal and vehicles bearing down on me from every imaginable direction, it reminded me of nothing so much as a massive game of Frogger.

Once inside and wandering about the tightly packed stalls, however, there’s nothing to do but give in to the sheer bliss of being surrounded by some of the most highly prized fish in the world. Here are a few photos of the action.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Magnificence That is Kyoto

I’ve spent the last three days in Kyoto, which is surely one of the most spectacular places in the world. From the meticulously tended gardens of Ginkaku-ji to the sophisticated architecture of Eikan-do, the delectable pleasures of the Nishiki market and the jewel-like storefronts of Ninen-Zaka and Sannen-zaka, this city simply takes your breath away. And that's even before you start to eat.

It seems criminal to cram everything into one blog post, but photos say much more than my prose. I loved the delicate and elegant tempura at Yoshikawa, the very personification of refinement. A perfect piece of eggplant melded seamlessly with the airy batter, while Japanese pumpkin asserted itself with an earthy flavor and texture. Kugomi, a fiddlehead fern, was about the most perfect piece of tempura I've ever had, its slight bitterness and vegetal character seeming tailor-made for this preparation. The tempura at Ten-you suffered only in comparison to the sublime Yoshikawa, but there were some excellent offerings, such as the unusual presentation of shrimp legs and the meltingly succulent anago, complete with the spine. I sampled nishin-soba, a Kyoto specialty involving dried and marinated herring, at Misoka-an Kawamichiya, a soba house that has been in business for almost 300 years; and at Aunbo, a refined and innovative eight-course menu included an amazing mackerel sashimi and several delicious variations of Kyoto tofu, as well as my new favorite spring mountain vegetable, fukinoto.

In a coincidence almost beyond belief, I ran into Anne-Claude Leflaive at Aritsugu, the legendary knife store in the Nishiki market that has supplied Kyoto’s chefs since 1560. How random is that? I don’t think she bought anything, but I, having absolutely no self-control, walked out with a shiny new carbon-steel, handcrafted deba, engraved with my name on the blade.

Aunbo, Higashiyama-Yasaka Torii mae, 525-2900
Misoka-an Kawamichiya, Fuyacho-dori Sanjo, 221-2525
Ten-you, Gokomachi Sanjo Sagaru, 212-7778
Yoshikawa, Tominokoji-dori Oike Kudaru, 221-5544

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ippudo Ramen, Ebisu, Tokyo

When I found out that I was coming to Tokyo, one of the first names that I wrote on my list of things to do was Ippudo, the famed Hakata-style ramen house. The servers here wear T-shirts that proclaim, “Your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy,” and on my visit they must have been very happy indeed, because I was positively overflowing with happiness.

Ippudo offers two variations of their rich, creamy, pork-bone broth ramen. The classic version is called Shiromaru Moto-Aji, which is a thick, white broth with a breathtaking intensity, harmony and complexity of flavor. It’s full-bodied and pungent yet never heavy, and I slurped every last drop out of my big, white bowl. The Akamaru Shin-Aji powers it up a notch, if that’s possible, with an even richer, porkier broth, plus a spoonful of red pork fat in case you haven’t had quite enough. This is an unbridled celebration of the pig, emphasizing richness and depth of flavor, whereas the Shiromaru (while being plenty rich in its own right) seems to have a bit more clarity and complexity. Both are utterly, fabulously delicious. I liked that the noodles in the Akamaru are ever-so-slightly thicker to balance the extra richness of the broth—the sort of attention to detail that lets you know these guys are really serious about their ramen.

On the table are a number of condiments to enliven your ramen (not that it really needs any enlivening), including spicy beansprouts, pickled greens, pickled ginger, fresh garlic (accompanied by a garlic press) and freshly ground sesame seeds. You’ll see your fellow diners heaping all of this stuff into their bowls, but I’d advise moderation at first, the better to enjoy the gloriously porky goodness of the broth. The Shiromaru is only ¥750 for a huge bowl, and the Akamaru ¥850, but for ¥100 more you can get the lunchtime set, which includes light, crunchy gyoza and a bowl of plain rice. At first I imagined the rice as overkill, but I was soon glad for its inclusion, as the pork broth is so rich that you almost need the rice to give you a bit of ballast.

As of the 17th of March, Ippudo has opened a branch in Manhattan, at 65 Fourth Avenue between 9th and 10th. I’m hoping it will be as spectacular as it is in Tokyo, but I’ll have to wait a little while to find out.

Ippudo, Hiroo 1-3-13, Tokyo (on Meiji-dori in the direction of Hiroo, on the left just past the post office)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Manotsuru Hizo Koshu Daiginjo, 10 Years Old

Frankly, most sakes don’t age all that well, and the vast majority of sake is intended to be drunk within a year or so of release. There is a small category of sake, however, called koshu, that is truly ageworthy.

Sado Island boasts one of the most famous gold mines in the world (it ceased operation a couple of decades ago), and in a stroke of inspiration, a group of sake producers has appropriated one of its cool, underground tunnels for use as a cellar. It’s normally off-limits to visitors, but Mrs. Rumiko Obata took us down there for a little peek and generously treated us to a sip of her rare Manotsuru Hizo Koshu Daiginjo.

Aged for ten years, this shows unbelievably elegant aromas of white truffle, fresh porcini and bone marrow, with a graceful, subtly layered fragrance. On the palate it’s like a hit of pure umami, demonstrating a burnished, biscuity character that my friend Akiko compared to aged champagne, yet it doesn’t taste “old” at all, as the overall feel is one of vigor and vitality. Even at ten years of age this exhibits a classic Niigata character—clean, dry and light on its feet—and finishes with long, taut and complex flavor. I’ve tasted some excellent koshu before, but never anything quite like this.

Later that day, we tasted a younger version of this sake, brewed last year and tucked away in the cellar (it will also be released at ten years of age). Sake and wine often behave very differently, but in this aspect, this koshu showed exactly the same character that you might expect a young, ageworthy wine to possess, emphasizing structure over aroma and feeling closed, restrained and slightly constricted. It’s the first time I’ve ever had an opportunity to do a comparative tasting of koshu sake like that, and it’s an experience I won’t easily forget.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Onsen: Hot Springs, Fine Gastronomy and Massive Quantities of Sake

For lodging in Japan, you can’t beat staying at a traditional onsen, or hot springs resort. On the island of Sado I stayed at Hotel Azuma, an onsen with a spectacular location on the west coast overlooking the Sea of Japan. Life at Azuma is comfortable and serene, and the outstanding service and beautiful surroundings make you wish you never had to leave. I loved the impeccably appointed Japanese-style rooms, with their quiet, elegant simplicity.

The waters of Niigata are soft and invigorating, and there’s nothing like being able to take a dip in one of Azuma’s outdoor or indoor baths before sitting down to a dinner prepared by the hotel’s renowned chef. Our array of dishes was nothing short of magnificent, from a delicate yet decadent amuse-bouche of monkfish liver to a lively tempura of fukinoto, a deliciously bitter local mountain vegetable, to a miso soup prepared at the table with a cake of flying fish. I particularly enjoyed the fresh and vibrant sashimi here, presented in a dome of ice along with a gavel to crack into it with. We dined with Mrs. Rumiko Obata of the nearby Obata brewery, and her Manotsuru sakes provided the perfect foil to the sophisticated and elegant cuisine.

Today I’m at Izumiya, a resort up in the mountains of central Niigata. The change in climate is surprising: back on the beach it was sunny and mild, if not exactly warm; here the surrounding hillsides are covered in half a meter of snow. Izumiya exudes a feeling of hospitality, and even approaching it from the road at night, the warm glow of its lights appears soothing and inviting in the winter landscape. The service is impeccably first-rate and the atmosphere luxurious: if you want to pamper yourself, a weekend at Izumiya would be just the ticket.

The waters here are renowned for having a particular quality known as tsuru-tsuru, feeling slippery, almost soapy against your skin. This is actually a recent development—while Izumiya has long been famous for its hot springs and its hospitality, its waters are said to have improved even further in the aftermath of the large Niigata earthquake four years ago. Like Azuma, Izumiya is also highly regarded for its gastronomy, and dinner here was an absolute feast for the senses. Sashimi and ice made another appearance together, here an assortment including some of the best fish I have ever eaten in my life, housed dramatically in a bowl made of ice. The array of sakes presented to accompany the meal was a veritable who’s who of Niigata, including Kubota, Koshi no Kanbai, Shimeharitsuru, Kikusui and Yoshi no Gawa. I particularly liked the ultra-rare Manju Junmai Daiginjo by Kubota, with its finely silky texture and elegant notes of white pepper and spiced pear.

As I sat in the hot outdoor bath in the crisp, early morning air, enjoying the restorative waters amidst snow-covered landscapes, I felt a slight twinge of pain in the realization that no matter where I go tomorrow or what I do, my life will definitely be the poorer for not being here at Izumiya.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hokusetsu Shuzo, Sado Island, Niigata

I visited a sake brewery for the first time in my life today: Hokusetsu Shuzo on Sado Island, in the Sea of Japan just off of the coast of Niigata, Hokusetsu is particularly famous for being the exclusive sake of the Nobu restaurants. This is Hokusetsu’s toji, Mr. Kanji Watanabe, who has been making sake here for the past ten years. Here Mr. Watanabe is showing us the koji-making process. Koji is rice that has been cultivated with aspergillus oryzae, a mold that converts the starches in the rice into sugar so that the yeasts can convert the sugar into alcohol. Up close and personal, it looks like this:

To get to that stage, the rice has to be steamed first, which is what these guys on the left are doing. Afterwards, the rice gets injected with the mold and goes into the trays below, which are organized in an automatic system that shifts the trays around, stirring the koji in each one. Making the koji is an important part of the sake-making process, and contributes a lot of character to the final product.

Nobu The Sake is a daiginjo, with high-toned, delicately fruity notes of green melon and sweet apple. The house’s regular daiginjo is thicker in texture, with darker fruit notes of cherry and plum, while the top-end daiginjo is fragrant, floral and full of elegance—it’s labeled YK35, which indicates that it’s made from Yamada Nishiki rice and Kumamoto yeast, and polished to 35 percent of the original grain.

Sado Island is full of fantastic food, sake and culture. Besides being home to all those things I said yesterday, it also features the toki (Japanese crested ibis), which is being brought back from the verge of extinction; the world-famous Kodo drummers; and the amazing Hana no Ki, a traditional inn that serves phenomenal food and that specializes in the camelia flower — it’s pretty, you can make healthy and delicious oil from it, and you can even eat it.

Niigata Prefecture

I spent a large portion of yesterday afternoon at the 2008 Sake No Jin, Niigata's annual sake festival. Niigata is the most famous sake-producing region in Japan, and hosts the largest festival: out of the prefecture's 97 kura, or breweries, 92 were in attendance this year, attracting upwards of 60,000 visitors to the two-day event.

The people of Niigata are also justifiably proud of their cuisine, and local delicacies include koshihikari table rice (considered the finest in Japan), a sweet winter strawberry called echigohime, wild salmon and nanban ebi, or northern red shrimp. Nanban means red chili pepper, and these shrimp derive their name from their bright red shells; their meat is sweet and succulent, with a silky texture. While I was plied with a vast array of incredibly delicious food today, nanban ebi certainly figured prominently. This photo is of a tremendously fragrant soup of miso and nanban ebi heads served during lunch at the renowned Sushi Marui restaurant; behind it, nanban ebi is included in an assortment of sashimi.

At a large dinner in the evening, more nanban ebi sashimi was upstaged by an even fresher option: live nanban ebi. I couldn't get a straight answer as to why the three shrimp in my bowl were only very gently twitching rather than jumping all over the place (general anesthesia? too much sake, like me?), but they made my task easier. The procedure for eating a live nanban ebi begins by twisting off the head: after that it's no more intimidating than peeling a shrimp normally. My first two passed complacently, but a third, a female full of salty-sweet roe, twitched a little as I decapitated her with my fingers. Caught up in the wanton slaughter of my food, I didn't remember to take a photo until this point, so this one is largely post-carnage.

Today it's off to Sado, a nearby island that is the home to several sake breweries, some hot springs, Charles Jenkins (an American soldier who defected to North Korea during the Korean War) and lots and lots of nanban ebi.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Eating in Tokyo: Shokkan

A rainy evening in Tokyo (I do realize that I was in Paris yesterday and in Oregon three days ago—it’s a long story). Seeing all the neon through the rain at night makes it feel especially Blade Runner-esque. At the little wine store in the Tokyo Station next to my hotel you can buy Cristal Rosé for ¥63,000, as well as a host of other elite wines. In case, you know, I get a late-night urge.

We had an absolutely splendid dinner at a small, modern kaiseki restaurant called Shokkan, in Shibuya. This is Kouei Furukawa, who possesses crazy mad knife skills. He treated us to nine subtle, thoughtfully inspired courses, each more beautiful and delicious than the next. It’s an open kitchen with 30 seats all around, like L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, so one has the pleasure of watching them work.

I loved this delicate soup of wakame seaweed and the lightest, wispiest balls of mochi, like what polenta could only dream of becoming. Owner Ken Sato keeps a terrific wine list as well, including Egly-Ouriet, Bollinger and Dom Pérignon among his champagnes. We drank saké, of course: a rich, almost caramelly Sawaya Matsumoto Junmai from Kyoto; the cool, briskly melony Kenkon Ichi Junmai Ginjo from Miyagi; the Yamagata Masamune Junmai Ginjo, which was full in body and rich in flavor, in typical Yamagata style; and a Tengumai Tokubetsu Junmai from Ishikawa, with a silky, sleek texture and pungent, peppery green fruit aromas.

I’d give you Shokkan’s address, but it baffles me, and anyway it’s all in Japanese. You could go to their website, which is also all in Japanese, of course. It's definitely a place worth finding.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Geography of Oysters

On the plane back to Paris I read Rowan Jacobsen’s outstanding book, A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America. Jacobsen is a writer for The Art of Eating, America’s greatest food magazine, and in this book he details everything related to this glorious bivalve, from history to shucking technique to nutrition to aquaculture, even making an argument for the ecological benefits of oyster farming. I particularly enjoyed reading his opinions on accompanying libations—most of us tend to lump all oysters into one category when thinking about wine pairings, but Jacobsen points out that the characters of different species call for different wines, preferring sauvignon blanc with Pacific and Kumamoto oysters and champagne or a light, dry grüner veltliner with Eastern ones. He notes, however, that dry sake, beer or a martini with a twist of lemon are usually even better with all species, and that sparkling water is often the best match of all, especially with the assertively flavored Olympias and European Flats.

The heart of the book is the chapter entitled “The Oyster Appellations of North America”, in which he takes the reader on a tour of the oyster-producing regions on both sides of the continent, profiling over 130 different varieties of oysters from all five different species and discussing the factors that give them each their individual character. This book presents ideas of terroir in a more intelligent and detailed manner than most wine books do, and Jacobsen skillfully distills a ton of research into an addictively entertaining and highly informative read. Check out Jacobsen’s excellent website as well, where you’ll find a small blog and an interactive map of oyster regions, as well as contacts for ordering oysters to be shipped to you. You can also download a cool PDF poster entitled “A Dozen Oysters You Should Know.”

This book makes me want to run over to Le Dôme tonight and eat a bunch of oysters, but unfortunately I’m hopelessly under the weather right now and in no shape for shellfish-eating. Vicarious pleasure will have to suffice. By the way, does anyone know if there’s a book anything remotely like this that discusses European oysters? (It wouldn’t have to be in English, although one in, say, Swedish might not do me any good.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Don’t Try This At Home

My friends Matt and Nadia visited the Victoria & Albert Museum and sent me this photo of a rather dangerous-looking tool on display.

The accompanying description reads:

30. Champagne Tap
Mounts of steel, France (Paris), early 19th-century
Champagne taps were invented in France during the 19th century and allowed a small quantity of champagne to be drawn from the bottle without the remainder losing its freshness.

That looks like a quick way to lose an eye. Or win the vinous equivalent of a Darwin Award.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Breakfast and Borgogno (but not at the same time)

I was reminded this weekend of Dr. Vino’s recent post about breakfast wines, although in my case, breakfast was actually breakfast! Ramonet Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet and Old Mill of Guilford grits. Outstanding. To be nitpicky, Ramonet Bienvenue isn’t so great with eggs. Some better choices for the eggs were a laser-like 1979 Lanson from magnum and a sappy, fragrant 1986 L’Espiegle Brut Rosé from R. Renaudin, also in magnum.

I have no reason to post this second photo other than that I love it: my friends shucking a fabulous spread of oysters on the back porch of the house, overlooking the Manzanita beach.

We finished the day with a small flight of Borgogno Barolo (after warming up with a complex, vigorous bottle of 1985 Marcarini Brunate and a richly meaty 1978 Produttori del Barbaresco Pora Riserva). The first legal document mentioning the Borgogno estate dates back to 1848, although Borgogno can trace its history as far back as 1761, when it was founded by Bartolomeo Borgogno. Known as a producer of traditionally-styled wines of great longevity, Borgogno periodically re-releases older vintages onto the market, and it’s possible to find great old vintages even today. The bottles that we drank were all from a European cellar and sported red capsules, indicating that they were from original releases (the re-released vintages now have a black capsule).

A 1964 was velvety in texture and sweetly primary, with firm structure and fragrant length, while the 1957 (hardly a vintage of great renown) showed a surprisingly voluptuous fragrance and tarry perfume. The 1952 was absolutely outstanding, with energetic, multi-dimensional flavors of porcini, sweet cherry, tar and dry spice. It was even sexier on the nose than the 1947, in a flirtatious, come-hither sort of way, but the latter wine was clearly the more complete and complex, with its deeply fragrant aromas and rich, mouthfilling presence. The astounding finish was reminiscent of a great La Tâche—long, complex, expansive and intricately detailed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Joly’s Clos de la Coulée de Serrant

Excessive doesn’t even begin to describe our behavior this weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk more wine in a 60-hour period, especially of this caliber. With anything from DRC to Raveneau to Huet to Salon to Marcarini, I think we managed to hit most of the major food groups. We took a break on Friday during a terrific morning of old white Burgundy to drink a small flight of Savennières from the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant.

Few wines are as polarizing today as Nicolas Joly’s Savennières. The 2002 brought up the usual discussion of oxidation in Joly’s current style of winemaking—this bottle was downright poor, feeling metallic, oxidative, alcoholic and clumsy. I’ve defended this wine in the past, and it's possible that another bottle might show better. For me, however, this was extremely disappointing. It was especially shocking in direct comparison with wines from the previous era, as today’s wines in no way resemble the wines of the past.

The pairing of 1986 and 1987 served as a wonderful example of this, with the former showing a sleekly luscious, waxy depth of fruit and the latter feeling like a distillation of pure minerality, its fruit existing solely as a vehicle for transmission of terroir. This is how Savennières should be: complex, refined, harmonious, dazzlingly soil-expressive, and above all, showing an impeccable balance. Even more regal was a spectacular bottle of 1961, its complex layers of flavor ranging from dried apricot to blanched almond to chestnut honey, all infused by a hauntingly fragrant minerality. Very few wines in the world can finish with such incredible length and detail as this one did. Will the wines of today turn out anywhere close to this? Personally, I don’t think so. What’s your opinion?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Alsace Wines in Portland

I love Alsace wines, and although I taste plenty, I rarely drink them at home. Why this is, I don’t really know. Is it because of residual sugar? Alcohol? The great rieslings of Alsace are superbly complex and terroir-expressive, and whenever I drink one it makes me wonder why I don’t drink more.

Last night in Portland, Oregon, my friends and I opened a 1998 Riesling Sommerberg L31D from Albert Boxler, which I realized I haven’t tasted for quite a number of years, even though I liked it very much in its youth. “D” stands for Duttenstein, a sub-parcel of the steep, granitic Sommerberg vineyard, and Boxler’s old vines here (50 years at the time) create a densely vivid wine of vendange tardive concentration. At ten years of age, this bottle was an absolute joy to drink, balancing a silky, mature richness against lingering primary flavors of citrus and stone fruit. We also drank a 1998 Tokay Pinot Gris from Roland Schmitt, and while it was delicious, with waxy notes of baked pear and marzipan, it couldn’t quite stand up to the majesty of that Boxler.

I’ll be spending the weekend on the Oregon Coast with a number of my best friends, eating and drinking myself into a stupor. These guys are serious. I should have brought an extra liver.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Snowball Fights (And Other Battles)

What a goal by Fabregas last night! The Spaniard's impeccably-placed, 25-meter strike caught Milan keeper Kalac by surprise and sent Arsenal romping merrily into the next round of the Champions League. Needless to say, a much needed morale boost for the team and its fans.

On a transatlantic flight today I read this article by James Kanter in the International Herald Tribune about the possibilities of English "champagne" in the face of climate change. Nothing particularly new, but it's a well-written summary of the whole issue.

At the moment I'm sitting in the Atlanta airport, of all places, cleaning out my iPhoto library. I ran across this wonderful photo from several years ago and decided that I had to share it. We've had nothing like this so far this winter in France. It's just been grey, wet and dull.

These are my friends Pete and Dave entertaining themselves at the expense of our hapless friend Carl, as he trudges up the road above a rather decent parcel of land. Any thoughts as to where?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Addressing the Cork Problem in Champagne

While the rest of the wine world debates the virtues of Stelvins and Vino-Loks, here in Champagne there aren’t many options. Cork taint is as much of a problem here as anywhere else, but to bottle champagne with anything but cork is currently unthinkable. However, the classic champagne cork, as depicted in this photo, is not the only solution.

One idea has been to insulate the wine from the cork with a small piece of silicone. As you can see in the photo below, the silicone sits inside a little hollow carved out in the bottom of the cork, and when the cork is compressed there is no contact between the cork and the wine. Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet has been using this system exclusively since 2001, and has been very pleased with the results.

As with the argument for screwcaps presented by Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche in Chablis, Chiquet cites not only overt cork taint as being a problem with classic cork but also the variations between one bottle and the next, which can range from the subtle to the alarmingly pronounced. Chiquet produces about 200,000 bottles a year, which is more than most growers, and he estimates that with classic corks, the deviation (either overtly corky bottles or bottles where the character was obviously changed by cork) was above seven percent. Since converting to the silicone system, he finds the deviation to be less than one percent, and notes that the bottles of each wine are far more consistent in character.

Chiquet continues to do regular taste trials comparing classic cork, silicone-protected cork and metal capsule. Curiously, he says that the silicone system seems to develop mature flavors slightly faster within the first two years compared to classic cork, but then after two years it stabilizes and the two become much closer together in character. How this system affects long-term aging remains to be seen, but after seven years Chiquet is so far quite satisfied.

A newer innovation has been the Mytik Diamant cork, a conglomerate combining particles of treated cork with synthetic materials. According to Sibel, the manufacturing company, molecules of TCA are completely eliminated from the cork through the use of compressed and heated carbon dioxide, in a process employing the same technology used to decaffeinate coffee or to extract bitterness from hops. They don’t say what the cork is mixed with (the material is referred to simply as “micro-spheres”), but the minimum amount of cork used is 70 percent. Ophélie Lamiable of Champagne Lamiable has switched completely to Mytik corks since last year and notes a pronounced improvement so far in both the level of cork taint (essentially reduced to nil) and in the regularity of one bottle to the next. Some other producers who have embraced the Mytik cork are Billecart-Salmon, Moët & Chandon, Jean Milan and René Geoffroy.

One interesting characteristic is that Mytik corks are slightly more elastic than regular corks—in the photo above you can see that this cork from a bottle of Lamiable 2003 Les Meslaines, disgorged sometime last spring, hasn’t nearly the mushroom shape that a classic cork of the same age would have. This might explain why some people report that the Mytik is slightly more difficult to remove from the bottle than a traditional cork, although I haven’t found it to be particularly troublesome.

Some hidebound purists, especially here in Europe, have complained about the aesthetic properties of the Mytik. I suppose they prefer corky wine. It seems to have been accepted so far in export markets, though, without much comment. While I’m as much of a traditionalist as anybody, cork taint drives me crazy, and I also hate the idea of years of a vigneron’s time and labor being ruined or adversely altered, however slightly, by a little piece of tree bark. I am a huge fan of alternative closures in still wine, and I’m happy to see the champagne industry addressing the problem of cork taint.

Several years ago, Domaine Chandon Australia (Green Point in export markets) released their Vintage Brut under a metal crown cap, followed later by their sister company Domaine Chandon in California, who released their prestige cuvée Étoile in crown cap. I think this is a bold and laudable idea, and I would gladly buy champagne in crown cap if the authorities would let me. Alas, it’s still illegal here.