Thursday, October 22, 2009

An End To Rambling

After 333 posts, I'm sorry to have to tell you that this is the last one.

I began this blog two years ago as a sort of informal diversion from my regular writing, and while it has been enjoyable, it has become too much to keep up with—between writing and maintaining ChampagneGuide.net, writing regularly for wine publications such as Wine & Spirits and The World of Fine Wine, working simultaneously on two different book projects and finding the time to simply keep up with regular tastings of current releases here in Champagne, I have little time for much else. Unfortunately, out of all of my activities, this blog is the one that has to go.

I can still be found in various other places, of course. ChampagneGuide.net continues to grow, and on my blog over there, I've been posting frequently about champagne, nearly every other day. As well as providing an in-depth focus on champagne, I hope to include more video and multimedia content in that blog, as well as in the other sections of the site. My intention with that site was always to make it more than just a collection of tasting notes, and as it develops, I'm hoping to turn ChampagneGuide.net into one of the world's most useful resources for champagne.

Elsewhere on the web, I occasionally contribute to ZesterDaily, my most recent story being this one about tasting grapes during the 2009 harvest in Champagne. Most of the rest of my writing is exclusively in print, although various stories do pop up from time to time on the Interweb.

So, rather than ramble on, I will say goodbye, and humbly thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate the interaction that we've had over the last couple of years, and I look forward to seeing you elsewhere, wherever and whenever that may be.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jérôme Prévost in The World of Fine Wine

I've written a piece on Jérôme Prévost for the current issue (#25) of The World of Fine Wine. The article is not posted online, but If you're a subscriber, you'll find it as the lead piece in the magazine's Review section, just before Serena Sutcliffe writes about a billion wines from DRC back to the Middle Ages and Stephen Brook tastes a whole century of Langoa Barton. But hey, at least my wine's sparkling. If you aren't a subscriber, you can still read it as a PDF document, here.

The review includes a rare vertical tasting of all of Prévost's wines from 1999 to 2007: Prévost typically makes only one wine per year from his two-hectare parcel of meunier in the vineyard of Les Béguines, but in two vintages (2000 and 2003) he made an additional cuvée that was aged for an extra year in barrel, and in 2007 he made a rosé champagne for the first time.

Prévost has been making champagne since the 1998 vintage, and when he invited me to Gueux in the spring to taste these wines, his intention was to offer a complete retrospective of his career. Unfortunately, he realized that he hasn't got any more bottles of 1998 left, but the (literally) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste the other 12 wines all together was extraordinary. The vintage currently on the market is the outstanding 2006, which I think is one of the best wines he's ever made; the 2007s should be released later on this year, and the rosé, especially, is not to be missed.

Updated 2 Oct: Added link to PDF file

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Jodocus Prüm's Birthday Party

Today is the 202nd birthday of Jodocus Prüm. The reason I am cognizant of this highly obscure fact is because a couple of years ago on this date, I had the extraordinary and unexpected privilege of attending a celebration commemorating his 200th, which was an inebriating, wildly surreal and thoroughly delightful experience.

Jodocus Prüm was a brother of Sebastian Alois Prüm, who was the grandfather of Johann Josef Prüm, as well as seven or eight other siblings from whom the various Prüm lines have descended. (Johann Josef Prüm, of course, is the founder of the renowned wine estate in Germany’s Mosel Valley that continues to bear his name today.) A lifelong bachelor, Jodocus used his money to fund many public projects, including building the actual sundials in the vineyards of Wehlener and Zeltinger Sonnenuhr (the name Sonnenuhr means sundial), and today he is a revered figure in the Mosel community.

So to celebrate his birthday, the Prüms threw a family party.

The Wehlener Sonnenuhr

I happened to be in the Mosel with my friend Kirk at the time, recovering from a hangover at the Dr. Loosen estate after the annual Mosel auctions. The Loosens are part of the Prüm clan (I think Erni Loosen’s great-grandmother was Joh. Jos. Prüm’s sister or something like that, but I’m still a bit hazy on the details), so as Kirk and I were still lounging about the Mosel taking up space, Erni invited us to come along to the event in the village of Wehlen. Kirk and I were a bit skeptical about crashing a private gathering of one of the most legendary families in the wine world, but as Erni was one of the primary organizers of the whole thing, he said not to worry about it.

Having the distinction of being one of only two people present who weren’t either descended from or married to somebody named Prüm, I naturally felt a bit out of place and slightly awestruck. With his Teutonic looks and Swabian blood, Kirk might pass for a distant member of the clan (he had actually been mistaken on the street for a Bergweiler earlier in the day), but there wasn’t going to be much of a chance of me, a skinny Asian guy, casually blending in. Everyone was pretty much staring at me wondering what the hell I was doing there, but once Dr. Manfred Prüm, grandson of Johann Josef and proprietor of the Joh. Jos. Prüm estate, came over to me and said how he’d been trying to get a chance to talk to me for the whole week (we’d seen each other in passing at several different events), I think most people were satisfied. As for the ones who kept asking, eventually Erni’s wife Eva started telling people that I was from a long-lost, illegitimate branch of the family, which of course sparked a lively debate as to which one of the Prüms might have originated it.

It could have been a plausible idea—apparently there hadn’t been such a comprehensive gathering of the extended family for something like 100 years, so who was to know? Dr. Prüm admitted to me that even he had forgotten who some of these people were. Waiting for the dust to settle as four generations of Prüms, Bergweilers, Loosens, Weils and other branches of the vast Prüm family tree crowded into the large dining room, I happily found myself seated next to Katerina Prüm, Manfred’s daughter, who also happened to be holding a bottle of 2004 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, saving me from the Peter Nicolay feinherb that I’d politely been pretending to be drinking. Many bottles of various wines continued to flow ceaselessly through a rapid dinner, followed by several long-winded speeches about items pertaining to Jodocus, his birthday, his legacy, and perhaps even to nothing at all. Katerina valiantly attempted to translate the proceedings for me, but they soon became so boring that even she stopped listening. I did catch the lament, though, that the name Jodocus was sadly out of fashion, and that perhaps something ought to be done about it. Eventually, however, everyone decided that drinking was better than talking, and people began dispersing to dip into the myriad coolers of wine lying all about the place. I got up to go look around and maybe find Kirk.

Erni suddenly materialized out of nowhere, thrusting a glass at me. It was brown, a little cloudy, and smelled and tasted rather like a lightly sweet manzanilla amontillado. I opined that maybe it was just a little bit weird. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s the ’37 Wehlener Sonnenuhr BA from Weins-Prüm.” Well, then. Clearly we weren’t hanging out in the right section of the party. Kirk and I wandered outside to where a cluster of people were gathered around Jost Prüm, the eldest brother of Manfred. (His real name is Johann Josef, like his grandfather, so with a name like that you can be sure he drinks well.) We arrived just in time to see him opening a bottle of Joh. Jos. Prüm 1949 Wehlener Sonnenuhr feinste Auslese. “Now things are really interesting,” said Kirk. “You’ve got no idea,” said Christoph, a cousin of Erni’s. “We’re only getting started.”


He wasn’t kidding. The next four or five hours were occupied by bottle after bottle, emanating in stately, copious array from the blessed and magical Prüm refrigerator. I particularly remember a J.J. Prüm ’59 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr feine Auslese, which showed a lively freshness and intense notes of slate under the soft, voluptuous richness of the vintage. Even screaming Prüm children running about tumultuously underfoot could not distract me from the glory of that wine, and it wasn’t even the wine of the night. The wine of the night was the J.J. Prüm Wehlener-Zeltinger Sonnenuhr feinste Auslese from 1969, with a piercing, impossibly fine clarity and ethereally fragrant finish. The richly concentrated, masculine J.J. Prüm 1971 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese goldkapsel heralded a whole parade of ’71s: a Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese from Zacharias Bergweiler-Prüm (Erni’s family); the even better Kaseler Nies’chen Spätlese from the same estate, with its laser-like Ruwer acidity; a stunningly youthful and vibrant Joh. Christoffel-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese. I’ve forgotten many other wines in the hazy riesling blur.

At 10pm there was a massive display of fireworks over the Wehlener Sonnenuhr across the river that echoed like artillery in the tight confines of the Mosel Valley, and as I stumbled around the corner of the village’s 17th-century church to get a better view, I was accosted by Dr. Peter Pauly (of the Pauly-Bergweiler estate, from another branch of descendants), brandishing a delicious bottle of Erdener Prälat 1971 Auslese from Christoffel-Prüm. As the incendiaries subsided, Jost reassembled his flock like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, pouring an amazingly fresh and primary 1976 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Beerenauslese from Zacharias Bergweiler-Prüm, which I sipped while listening to Bettina Prüm, sister of Katerina and daughter of Manfred, explain to me her doctoral thesis on the sticky part on bugs’ feet that allows them to cling to different surfaces. (!) God knows what else I drank. Eventually I was pretty trashed, and pretty cold in the crisp September evening as well, and was about to suggest to Kirk that we call it a night when Jost announces in a booming voice that it’s time for another ’49. Hell, yeah. This one was the “regular” Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese from J.J. Prüm, which showed even more freshness and primary fruit than the feinste Auslese, if not seeming quite as long or as highly structured. Freakishly great wine.

By this time it was around two in the morning, and Kirk needed to be at the Frankfurt airport by eight. We made a slow round of good-byes, drinking quite a few other wines in that process, and eventually ending up bidding farewell to our host, Jost Prüm. He protested our leaving, clearly disappointed in our stamina, but extended a hearty handshake to each of us, inviting us back for a future Prüm-a-thon. “Next time you come,” he said, “we’ll drink old wines.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

ChampagneGuide.net in Vinforum

ChampagneGuide.net was written up by Knut Sogner in the July issue of Vinforum, the Norwegian wine magazine edited by Scandinavia's first Master of Wine, Arne Ronold. The article is also posted online at the Vinforum website, but if you don't read Norwegian, here is a translation of the text. Special thanks to Kari-Anne Hamre for the translation, and Joseph Di Blasi of Vinosseur for bringing the article to my attention. Tusen takk!

The Champagne Guide

Not long ago ”Nettspalten” wrote about a new newsletter concerning Champagne (Champagnewarrior.com), and suddenly now there’s another new website dealing just with Champagne, ChampagneGuide.net (www.champagneguide.net). This time there’s a familiar name behind it, Peter Liem, one of the pioneers behind serious publications in reference to wine on the internet.

Peter Liem, together with Kirk Wille, was behind the Riesling Report, a publication to be reckoned with which was started by the two young men from Oregon, USA as far back as 2000. The Riesling Report had a short life, but Peter Liem has been writing about wine for the American wine zine “Wine & Spirits” for the past few years. He is stationed in Champagne and for a while he has been blogging “Besotted Ramblings and Other Drivel” (www.peterliem.com), a site which is free of charge and highly recommended. I also highly recommend the ChampagneGuide.net, a service with an annual cost of USD 89,- Liem is both an experienced writer and interested in Champagne. He stays away from giving points and ranges wines by a simple star system where three stars is the top rating.

He belongs to a growing number of wine aficionados trying to understand the wines based on what the producers are trying to achieve with their wines. The web site is simplified by combining producer portraits with tasting notes of a few somewhat new wines, but this is merely a staged limitation of information. It holds exact and original knowledge which in a well-written manner provides a very good background for forming your own opinions.

This pay-for-service along with his article on Besotted Ramblings, gives a wide presentation of Champagne. I haven’t fully constructed a complete image of his preferences. I register that he is concerned with young, experimental producers, yet he does not come across as a slave to trends. He has several very good and new – and interesting – descriptions of established houses. For those of us who have visited Champagne – the villages, small producers, the big houses – Liem provides the right associations which tells us he has a deep understanding of what is going on. He also uses – like in the Riesling Report – photographs in an illustrating and well thought out manner. Not in the least he writes something as rare as thoughtful tasting notes which give the reader additional information and something to think about.

This is a new service and thus it is still too early to pass any judgment. There are still many producers yet to be portrayed. Also yours truly has been busy and still not read everything. But so far it seems Liem could be for Champagne what Burghound is for Burgundy, namely a safe haven for those of us coming from the outside. Liem probably won’t get the commercial breakthrough Burghound has enjoyed as he doesn’t provide easy point systems or easily distributed newsletters or publicizes as many tasting notes, but he has sunk so deep into Champagne that he can offer an insider’s understanding.

Yes, if I had to pick one website for Champagne, I would pick Liem over Brad Baker (Champagne Warrior) or Richard Juhlin (www.champagneclub.com) even if the three compliment each other.

Knut Sogner

Monday, September 14, 2009

New Features on ChampagneGuide.net


As of this weekend, I've added several new features on ChampagneGuide.net. The first is a collection of vintage profiles, which outline the general weather conditions of each year, describe the style of the resulting wines and offer my personal views on the vintage's quality and character. At the moment I've included all years from 2008 through 1995, but as I continue to add older vintages to this section, I will eventually have profiles of all years back to at least 1970, and possibly beyond.

I've also created an Articles section, in which I will be writing feature-length articles each month on various topics related to champagne. Where possible, I am hoping to pair these articles with complementary multimedia content, such as slideshows or videos: for example, my friend Dave and I have been working on a video about the highly-regarded 2008 vintage, in which we interview a number of top producers and taste lots of vins clairs, and this will appear together with a forthcoming article about 2008.

In addition, I've started a new blog on the site, which is of course intended to discuss all things champagne. It's accessible only to subscribers, which means that it won't be read as widely as it might be otherwise, but I think that it will prove intriguing: I will be discussing a wide range of champagne-related topics in greater depth and detail than I have been on this blog, and I also hope to include more multimedia features as well.

If you're a subscriber to the site, head over there and check it out—the new features are live now, and everything is functioning smoothly thanks to my outstanding web team. At the moment I'm a bit swamped with deadlines relating to other work, plus there's a harvest going on here. As soon as things settle down, though, I'll be working much more on the site, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Zester Daily

I've begun contributing to Zester Daily, a new website about food and wine. Created by a team led by Corie Brown, a former writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times, Zester Daily features an array of talented and illustrious writers (and me) who examine food and drinks from a wide range of perspectives, from cooking and dining to farming, politics, health and the environment.

The site focuses more on food than it does on wine, with articles from well-known authors such as Clifford A. Wright, Liz Pearson, Martha Rose Shulman, Tim Fischer and Nancy Harmon Jenkins. However, you'll also find wine-related articles by writers like Elin McCoy, wine and spirits columnist for Bloomberg News and author of The Emperor of Wine, and Patrick Comiskey, my colleague at Wine & Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appétit and other publications.

I've only written one article so far, about the challenges of practicing organic and biodynamic viticulture in Champagne. Champagne probably won't be the primary topic of my articles on Zester Daily, however, as I'll also be writing about wines from other regions, as well as about tea, sake and other delicious things that interest me.

Monday, August 31, 2009

1964 Schloss Johannisberg Spätlese


I suppose you can't live exclusively on champagne. God knows I've tried. I've admittedly had my fair share of champagne since arriving in New York last week, but dining at Hearth with a friend, we decided that riesling was the way to go. After all, any restaurant that declares an annual Summer of Riesling program is a force to be reckoned with.

The plan, then, was something young, something old. Young turned out to be a splendid bottle of 1992 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese, still showing loads of fresh fruit flavors but tempered and refined by bottle age. To follow it, the 1964 Spätlese by Schloss Johannisberg in the above photo.

The image of German wine has largely been shaped by the Mosel over the past few decades, but it's always a joy to drink old Rheingau rieslings. I loved how expressive the terroir signature was in this wine, even at 45 years of age, and it was made even more evident by preceding it with a wine from the Saar. There was still plenty of fruit as well, and in fact, about half an hour after opening the bottle the fruit turned downright primary, with remarkable freshness, clarity and length.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Roses de Jeanne Coteaux Champenois


I think that this might be one of the most beautiful photos I've ever taken in my life. It was purely by chance, a quick snapshot in poor lighting just before we got down to actually tasting this wine yesterday.

This is one of two barrels of Roses de Jeanne 2008 Coteaux Champenois from Les Ursules—the stuff you see there that looks like flor is, actually, flor. Normal people tend to avoid this like the plague when making pinot noir, but then, Cédric Bouchard isn't exactly "normal", now, is he? He's left this barrel sitting there untouched, still on its lees from fermentation, and is entirely unconcerned about the growth on its surface. In fact, he says that it's helped to naturally protect the wine from oxidation, and considering how vibrant, vivid and pure the flavors of this wine are, it's difficult to argue. This is going to be exciting—this wine won't be released for a while, of course, but it will definitely be worth keeping an eye out for.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Terroir of a Teapot

Tea, like wine, is strongly affected by the type of vessel that it's made in. The two most common materials used for teaware are clay and porcelain, and I often think of the relationship between these two as being similar to that of wood and stainless steel in wine. Clay, like wood, can give a tea a little bit of reinforcement in body and structure, helping to shape the flavors in a particular and positive way. If the clay is too young (if the teapot is not seasoned well enough), it can overly mark the tea with its flavor, but this is not considered desirable, and thankfully it will fade with time. Porcelain, on the other hand, is considered to be a relatively neutral vessel, much as a tank is in winemaking.

The most famous clay teapots, for Chinese tea anyway, come from Yixing, a town in Jiangsu province, northwest of Shanghai. Due to the particular properties of the various clays in this region, Yixing teapots are thought to be the ideal complements to Chinese oolong and pu-erh teas, as well as the most prestigious. If they were oak, they would be the equivalent of French forests such as Tronçais, Allier or Nevers.

But there are other clays, too. I recently purchased a Chaozhou teapot, made in the Chaozhou region on the eastern side of Guangdong province. This area is well-known for a particular type of tea called Dan Cong, which is an oolong that is often made from very old trees, each of which is valued for a distinct and particular character. You could certainly make these teas in a Yixing pot. But the local Chaozhou pots are made from clay that comes from Phoenix Mountain, the same place that most of these teas are grown, and the idea of marrying a pot and a tea from the same terroir is, for me, a fascinating one.


This concept exists in the wine world, too. I think the first time I ever thought about it was at Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria's Kamptal, a little over ten years ago when Michi Moosbrugger had just taken over the property. At the time, he mentioned that he was working with oak barrels, which wasn't all that unusual, but rather than opting for the French and Hungarian barrels that everybody else was using, he wanted to try barrels from the local Manhartsberg forest, just to the north. The wood is just as impacted by terroir as the wine is, he reasoned, and if you're concerned about expression of place and authenticity and individuality, wouldn't it be better to use trees that come from the same soil and that breathe the same air as the vines, rather than using wood from thousands of miles away?

There are similar sentiments here in Champagne today—several producers I know are experimenting with local Champenois wood, made by a local cooper in the village of Cauroy-lès-Hermonville. Some are even going so far as to select specific trees from specific places, with the idea of making Le Mesnil wine in a barrel made from oak grown in Le Mesnil, for example, or Verzy champagne in a barrel from Verzy. Will it be "better"? Who knows. Not necessarily. But I think that the idea is terrifically intriguing.


I'm overjoyed with my Chaozhou teapot, by the way. I've had it for about a week now, and after daily sessions of tea it's getting to the point where it's settling down and becoming complementary in a very harmonious way. It should continue to improve even further as I use it more. Comparing the same tea in the pot and in a porcelain gaiwan (lidded cup), as I'm doing right now with a Yu Lan Xiang from La Maison des Trois Thés, the tea is definitely more complex in aroma and more elegantly shaped on the palate when it's made in the teapot. This is an organoleptic assessment, mind you, not a scientific one—you could point out that the volumes of the two vessels are not the same, nor are the shapes, and this could affect the way the tea behaves as well. If I wanted to get even more left-brainy I would brew the tea in a Yixing clay pot to compare, too. (Actually, you know, I just might do that.) But at some point tea, like wine, is not only about intellectual analysis. Using this pot gives me pleasure in many different ways, and that makes the experience much more meaningful for me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Foillard.

I was feeling really down tonight, and in the time-honored tradition of men the world over, I turned to drink. I went down to the cellar for a bottle of champagne, of course—what else would it be? Yet after rummaging around in the damp, cobwebby depths, I surprised even myself by emerging not with champagne, but with a bottle of Foillard Morgon, Corcelette 2006.

It was delicious, showing you its velvety, black cherry fruit while simultaneously throwing an elbow of flinty, granitic f**k-you-ness. Old vines, little sulfur, no fining, no filtration, all true.

Yes, I drank the whole bottle. No, everything is still not right with the world. But as far as anesthesia goes, I appreciate the Foillards being here on this planet and giving us the things that they do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Multiculturalism in Action, Again

In the middle of a sunny afternoon here in Champagne, I took a break from watching video highlights of Arsenal's pre-season matches writing my column for Wine & Spirits to enjoy the sunshine and inspect the leftovers of last night's Aspasie Blanc de Blancs, just to, you know, make sure it was still fit for human consumption and all.

Thanks to the massive carbon footprint that is modern transportation, I happen to be in possession of a bag of krupuk, the Indonesian chips made of prawn paste and tapioca flour that are ubiquitous anywhere Southeast Asian people are present (thereby completely ruling out the Champagne region). While not exactly Proustian, krupuk do nevertheless trigger fond memories for me, as they never fail to remind me of sitting in my grandmother's kitchen as a child (she was Indonesian), watching her fry these things up in a big, black wok.

It's probably not a huge surprise to hear that krupuk are excellent with champagne. After all, potato chips, french fries, tempura, and just about anything else that's deep-fried make terrific partners to champagne. But krupuk have the additional superpower of shrimpiness, beyond their simple quality of being fried. Aspasie's blanc de blancs comes from the village of Brouillet, on the far western side of the Montagne de Reims where there are tons of little fossils embedded in the 60 million-year old chalk, and at the moment I'm imagining that these are having a bonding moment with all the little prawns embedded in my krupuk. This might not be the most highbrow of food-and-wine pairings, but there's no denying its tastiness.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pascal Doquet Sans Soufre

First of all, let me emphasize that I am not a no-sulfur junkie. I have no less of a passion for natural wine than anybody else, but I am not a member of the religious order of Natural Wine, and I have a healthy distaste for anything resembling dogma, fanaticism or inflexibility of belief (unless it relates to football). I am not of the opinion that sulfur is intrinsically evil or that wine is automatically inferior when sulfur is used in its production. And just to throw a little elbow in that direction, I have tasted enough brown and oxidized wines (distinctly different from oxidative wines, mind you) that might have actually been improved if their makers hadn't been so dogmatic about this whole no-sulfur thing.

So now that that's out of the way, I can get on with telling you about this champagne that I'm drinking. It was actually opened two days ago, when I was down in Vertus with Pascal Doquet: he poured a pair of wines blind, and told me that they were in fact the same wine except for one detail. I guessed it on the second try—my first guess was that the oak was different, as it was so much more raw in one of the wines, but after that I did guess that one of them was made without sulfur. It's a 2007 from Le Mont Aimé, same grapes, same press, all vinified in barrel. The only difference is that part of it was sulfured and part wasn't.

The two wines are indeed remarkably different, even from the moment that the bottles were opened. The Avec Soufre version is tighter, crisper, yet it feels a bit unfriendly. It's like a sulking kid that just sits against the wall and pouts all through recess. Even now, two days later, it feels like it's fighting its wood, refusing to really integrate and become harmonious. The Sans Soufre is richer and fuller in aroma, and balances its oak much better at this stage. As with most good unsulfured wines, there's a certain voluptuousness about it, something sensual and visceral: in French, you might say it's gourmand. Pascal warned me that the unsulfured wine declines much more quickly after opening and that it ought to be drunk up soon, but even now, two days after it was opened, it feels generous and expressive, without any signs of fading. It's more oxidative than the sulfured wine, to be sure, but it's in no way oxidized. Right now, it tastes really good.

These won't be released until maybe around 2012, so they still have a long way to go in their development. How they will appear three years from now, I have no idea. Will the sulfured wine integrate better with its wood? Will it appear much fresher than the unsulfured version? Will we regret not drinking the unsulfured wine back in 2009 when it was still vibrant and delicious? Only time will tell.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Prime Real Estate


On the topic of enviable locations for an apartment: I'm currently staying with friends in London, and this is their front door. Yep, that's right. That blue one in the middle. A two-story flat directly above one of the world's greatest sources of artisanal cheese. Not to mention that it lies practically inside the fabulous Borough Market....

Friday, July 17, 2009

Roman Holiday


Back from a much-needed week of vacation in Rome. Not a ton of wine, as that wasn't the point, but I did have a fair amount of champagne, ironically, thanks to my friend Giulio. Go figure. No matter where I am, there seems to always be champagne. Anyway, I hardly felt that I was missing anything, being surrounded by funghi porcini freschi, tartufi of the sea, gelato artigianale and all the amaro I could possibly drink. Not to mention the limoncello made by my friend Giacomo's mother....

Now to clear the holiday fog from the brain and get back to work.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wine Is For Drinking


I'm writing a short article on Jérôme Prévost tonight, and ran across this quote in my notebook that I like very much. Back in March, we were drinking a number of older vintages of Les Béguines together, some of which represented the last bottles remaining in his cellar. He wasn't too hung up about the fact that he didn't have any more left. "Wine is for drinking," he said. "Too many people buy wine and just look at it. It's a fetish." I certainly did my part in attempting to drink as much Les Béguines as I possibly could that evening.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bottling and the Moon

I was thinking this morning about something that Anselme Selosse told me a couple of weeks ago, when I asked him about the lunar cycle and its influence on his work. We were talking about the optimum time for bottling, and he noted that the phases of the moon have an influence on the yeasts, with yeasts becoming more active as the moon waxes, and less active as it wanes. Therefore, he said, the best time to bottle champagne is just before the full moon, as the yeasts are at their most active—with champagne you want the yeasts to be active because of their role in the fermentation in bottle. With still wine, on the other hand, bottling takes place just after the full moon. Presumably there are no yeasts going into your bottle when you're making still wines, but apparently the principle is that you want activity of all forces to be on the decline, allowing the wine to settle down.

Or at least that's how I understood it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Diebolt-Vallois Rosé!

In about a week, Diebolt-Vallois will release a rosé champagne, the first that Diebolt has made since 1985. As you can see in this photo, they're just waiting for labels....

It would have been easy to just drop a little red wine into the non-vintage blanc de blancs, but that's not Diebolt's style. This is actually a whole new cuvée made largely from red grapes, and blended with a little red wine purchased from the Tornay estate in Bouzy. Fruity and fresh, it's designed for early drinking: "Rosé isn't meant to age very long," says Jacques Diebolt.

I've added a tasting note for this rosé on ChampagneGuide.net, and I've updated the notes on the rest of Diebolt's range as well, including the new release of Cuvée Prestige and the brand-new 2004 Fleur de Passion.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Riesling in Paris

In Paris this weekend I met up with Lars Carlberg, who represents a number of exciting growers in Germany's Mosel Valley through his Trier-based company, Mosel Wine Merchant. Lars was in town showing some new wines to Mark Williamson of Willi's Wine Bar and Macéo (that's the two of them in this photo), and invited me to join them for a morning Rieslingfest, along with Macéo sommelier Guillaume, Drew Harre of Fish la Boissonnerie and Dany Bertin-Denis of Les Enfants Rouges.

I've been so occupied with other things this year that I haven't had the chance yet to taste a single German riesling from 2008 up until now. On Saturday, Lars opened about 20 wines from the vintage, mostly dry—I loved the St. Aldegunder Himmelreich Kabinett trocken by Ulli Stein, inspired by Vinho Verde. Stein's idea was to make a truly dry wine under 10 degrees of alcohol, and while this may not be the most profound or complex riesling in the Mosel, its crisp, summery freshness just makes you want to drink loads of it. For profundity, the Ayler Kupp Fass 6 from Peter Lauer was sophisticated in its delicate balance and keen expression of terroir, showing all of the detail and class of this top site—not all of the Kupp is up to this quality, but this wine comes from the original parcel known as Kupp prior to the expansion of 1971. In a bigger, gutsier vein, the Kabinett trocken from Clemens Busch was delicious, combining rich fruit with incisive acidity and a hint of pleasantly herbal bitterness to keep it refreshing and buoyant. It's entirely from the upper portion of the Pündericher Marienburg, but this can't be marked on the label due to the new VDP regulations (don't get me started on that). Also delicious was Steinmetz's Kestener Paulinsberg Spätlese** (two-star), which Stefan Steinmetz has made in a sort of homage to Joh. Jos. Prüm—lithe and filigreed, it of course shows a very different terroir signature to, say, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, but it's marked by the "sponti" notes of Mosel wild-yeast fermentation that made me think of this post by Brooklynguy. That might put some people off, but I think the wine is beautiful.

The wine of the day for me, though, was the 2008 Röttgen trocken by Knebel. The Uhlen, as usual, was sterner, more tightly-wound, with more overt stuffing, but in this vintage the Röttgen has such a gorgeous purity of expression, its fruit essentially existing solely to provide a platform and structure for maximum transmission of terroir character. Fruity riesling it is not, but if slate and site-specificity are your things, this is definitely a wine to seek out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Vouette et Sorbée in 31 Days of Natural Wine

I'm contributing today to 31 Days of Natural Wine, a collaborative project conceived of and hosted by Cory Cartwright on his blog, Saignée.

My post today is on Vouette et Sorbée, the biodynamically-farmed estate of Bertrand Gautherot in the Aube. Have a look, and return to Cory's site over the next few weeks for guest posts on natural wine by some of the best wine bloggers out there.

Friday, June 26, 2009

ChampagneGuide.net in Winart

ChampagneGuide.net is featured in the July 2009 issue of Winart, Japan's leading wine magazine.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Champagne Corks and Their Alternatives

Last night, I posted a video to ChampagneGuide.net's Facebook page about champagne corks and some recently proposed attempts to replace them.

Among the latest solutions is the Maestro, the new closure by Duval-Leroy and Alcan that you can see in this photo. Duval-Leroy is releasing a portion of the new 2004 Clos des Bouveries with this closure, which is built around a crown-capsule (thus not involving any cork whatsoever), and Sandrine Logette-Jardin, chef de cave of Duval-Leroy, kindly gave me a bottle for this video.

Click here to see it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne

I am proud to tell you that last night I had the honor of being inducted as a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne. At the order's annual meeting in the sumptuous Palais de Tau in Reims, Commandeur de l'Ordre Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger waved his magic "pomponne" and welcomed me into the Chapitre de la Fleur de Vigne, one of the three official chapters of the organization. There were trumpets! Ceremony! Fanfare! Knights Who Say 'Ni'! (Wait, no, that was something else.)

The Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne traces its history to the 17th century, when a number of young aristocrats, most of whom were landowners in Champagne, formed a group to promote the wines of the region. According to Patrick Forbes in his outstanding book Champagne: The Wine, the Land and the People, the origin of the name dates from shortly after the coronation of Louis XIV in 1666, and can be attributed to the activities of three of the group's most prominent members, all renowned for their loyal devotion to the finest things vinous and gastronomic: the Marquis de Saint-Evremond, the Comte d'Olonne and the Marquis de Bois-Dauphin. Forbes writes:
Soon after the coronation they dined with the Bishop of Le Mans, and so horrified the old man with their fastidiousness in matters of food and wine that he went about Paris afterwards saying: "These gentlemen, in seeking refinement in everything, go to extremes: they can only eat Normandy veal; their partridges must come from Auvergne, and their rabbits from La Roche-sur-Yon; they are no less particular as regards fruit; and, as to wine, they can only drink that of the good coteaux of Aÿ, Hautvillers and Avenay." Their friends, who thought this a huge joke, started calling them the Trois Coteaux, and before long the whole group became known as the Ordre des Coteaux.

The group actually did a great deal to popularize the wines of Champagne at the time, playing an important role in the region's development, and they remained in existence until shortly before the Revolution. In 1956, a group of Champenois led by Roger Gaucher and François Taittinger revived the Ordre, and today it serves as the most visible and prestigious body of ambassadors of champagne worldwide. Prior to Pierre-Emmanuel's election as Commandeur in March of this year, Pierre Cheval of Champagne Gatinois held that office; previous Commandeurs have included such luminaries as Claude Taittinger, Bernard de Nonancourt and Christian de Billy. The Ordre also has a number of officers, including Didier Depond of Salon/Delamotte (pictured with me here), my sponsor in the order.

As a Chevalier, I am sworn to defend the cause of champagne and promote the appreciation of champagne in whatever way I can. I'm probably also expected to drink as much champagne as humanly possible. I think I can do that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Image of Blanc de Blancs

I was speaking with Denis Velut of Champagne Jean Velut in Montgueux yesterday, and he said something that I found rather curious. We were tasting his 2000 millésime, which is 100-percent chardonnay—in the past he used to add about 20 percent of pinot noir to his vintage brut, but since 1999 he's begun making it exclusively from chardonnay, as chardonnay is rightfully the emblematic grape variety of the Montgueux area.

The label of this wine, however, still says Brut Cuvée Millésime, with no mention of blanc de blancs anywhere. When I asked him about this, he replied, "The name blanc de blancs doesn't have very good connotations. People in France associate it with crémant, and think of blanc de blancs as cheap sparkling wine."

I was quite surprised by this, as I doubt that people in export markets think of blanc de blancs that way at all. It seems to me, in fact, that it's the reverse—names such as Salon, Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier and Diebolt-Vallois have helped to give blanc de blancs a terrifically high level of prestige, even more so than other styles. Many wine lovers I know declare blanc de blancs to be their favorite style of champagne.

What do you think? Do you have a particular response one way or another to the term blanc de blancs? For those of you who are French, does blanc de blancs have any negative connotations for you?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Flowering Begins


It's been damp and dreary here in Champagne, meaning that I haven't had much motivation for going out into the vines over the past few days. I finally did so yesterday afternoon, and found... flowers! Here's a photo of some nascent chardonnay in Ambonnay.

Counting one hundred days from now puts the Champagne harvest in mid-September. Let's hope for positive conditions between now and then.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kirby Allison's Hanger Project

Too few men, alas, pay enough attention to what they wear, and even fewer pay any attention to caring for the things that they wear. It is perhaps a sign of the inexorable decline of modern society that clothing is viewed by the majority of the male population today as either an afterthought or else as something vaguely effeminate, right up there with champagne, riesling and poulsard.

For those who do realize that they way you appear to others actually matters, the world of men's dress is often a frustrating place. True style has been largely supplanted by fashion, to the point where most people are unable to distinguish between the two. The concept of proper fit has become even more elusive than the understanding of a wine's terroir. The quality of available garments is rapidly declining from mediocre to downright appalling, meaning that simply procuring a well-constructed, properly fitting article of clothing often necessitates custom tailoring. And dammit, you just can't get any good hangers anymore.

Fortunately, Mr. Kirby Allison has stepped in to address this last dilemma. I guarantee that the majority of men, even those who do think about what they wear, rarely stop to consider the seemingly innocuous object that faithfully bears the burden of supporting their clothing day in and day out. That is a grave mistake. As with wine, clothing needs to be stored properly in order to maintain its optimum condition, and nothing could be easier than hanging a suit on a properly contoured wooden hanger—ideally, one from Kirby Allison's Hanger Project. This is the Rolls-Royce of hangers.

"The whole project stemmed from the frustration of how impossible it was to find good suit hangers," says Allison. "Everything is either plastic or cheap wood. We wanted to create the best hanger for the best clothes—no compromises. Something that would make a meaningful difference in keeping jackets looking great. No more creased trousers and collapsed, limp jackets."

What makes Allison's hangers different? First of all, they're contoured rather than straight, and not just a little contoured, but radically so, adhering much more closely to the natural curve of the shoulders. Your jacket is designed to lie on the contoured outlines of your body, and unless your hanger follows similar lines, the jacket will be pulled out of shape when it is hung. "The most important characteristic of our hangers is the support they lend to the garment," says Allison. "Proper support is essential to protecting the work that went into creating a jacket. Without proper support, jackets quickly lose their shape." This photo shows the hanger from above, to show you how pronounced the shape is, as well as how generously flared the shoulders are—at a whopping 2.5 inches in depth, the shoulders are five times the size of the industry's average.

Second of all, these hangers are sized. Width is important because of how the hanger supports the shoulders of your jacket—too short and it doesn't hold up the shoulder; too wide and it extends into the sleeve, stretching and potentially damaging the jacket. Allison's hangers come in three sizes—17 inches, 18.5 inches and 20 inches—ensuring a proper fit. I'm a small guy, small enough that a size 36 coat purchased off the rack needs to be taken in. The 17-inch hanger is an unusually small size (most commercially-available hangers are between 17.5 and 19 inches in width), and it's just about the maximum width possible for my jackets.

Third, these hangers are crafted with a keen attention to detail. Made of solid, responsibly-harvested American maple wood, they are highly polished and stained with a vibrantly lustrous, bubinga-like finish—while some manufacturers boast unfinished cedar hangers, I actually don't like those at all, as they tend to be rougher in texture, potentially snagging your clothing, and they can even sometimes secrete natural oils. The finish and feel of Allison's hangers are beautiful, and even just looking at this hanger sitting here on my desk makes me want to touch it. In addition, the locking ring hook is attached with an embedded washer instead of a threaded screw as most hangers are, meaning that this hanger can support a lot more weight, and the hook will never pull out or strip. Originally, the hangers were fitted with a locking trouser bar, which is something I never use—if you actually put your trousers into those things, they will crease badly, and then you need a trouser press. (And come on, how many of us actually have one of those?) Allison had the brilliant idea of replacing this with a thick, felted trouser bar that holds trousers securely in place without creasing them at all. Why all hangers don't come equipped with one of these, I really don't know.

But yes, I hear you. This is frivolous, you say. I have neither a Savile Row suit nor a Rubinacci jacket , so why should I care how it is stored? Please. Do you store your Burgundy on top of the fridge just because it's not Romanée-Conti? I realize, unfortunately, that many men nowadays don't even wear jackets, much less suits, but if you do, and if your suits come from anywhere better than H&M, you need to at least think about caring for your garments. The first and most basic step is putting them on a good hanger. They're not even overly expensive: the suit hangers are sold in sets of three for US$74.85, making them $24.95 apiece, and they can be shipped anywhere in the world. While this may be more than the cheap, flimsy wooden hangers you buy at Target, it's a remarkably small price to pay in the relative scheme of things, especially for the superior quality of the product. As Allison says, "We’re the shoe tree of suits. If you spend $15 on a pair of shoe trees for $300 shoes, why wouldn’t you spend $25 on a hanger for an $800 suit?" Hangers are also available for shirts, trousers and jackets, and Allison's line includes hangers for women as well. Forget about that tie that Dad's never going to wear—this Father's Day, give him something different. But keep at least one of these hangers for yourself. You might never go back to those other flimsy things ever again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Why Not Sake?

I was in Paris last night visiting my friend Barbara, who recently returned from a trip to Japan. We were drinking a delicious bottle of sake that she had brought back with her, and she asked, un-rhetorically, "Why don't people drink more sake?"

Honestly, I was stumped. I naturally have an opinion about the subject—personally I think that people should drink more sake—but putting that aside and looking at it objectively, I really don't know why more people don't drink sake.

It can't be an issue of alcohol. Most sakes are between 15 and 16 percent alcohol, which is only a touch higher than many table wines these days. Is it a perception that it only goes with Japanese food? Sake is exceptionally food-friendly, and it can be argued that it's even more widely versatile at the table than wine is. I suppose the fact that all the labels are written in Japanese can be intimidating, but in the United States, back labels carry a great deal of information printed in English that's enormously helpful to the consumer. (All of you guys who complain that champagne houses don't print enough technical data on the label, check out the back label on a sake bottle sometime.)

Perhaps its simply that sake is unfamiliar. Not only is there alien terminology such as junmai and ginjo, but even the flavors and aromas of sake can often lie outside of the range of typical Western experience. But honestly, if you can say ramen and sashimi, you can say junmai.

I'm curious—do you drink sake? If so, do you drink it with non-Japanese cuisine? Do you share it with friends? If you don't drink sake, is there a reason?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Tea For Sunny Weather

In Paris this weekend, I stopped by one of the finest tea shops in the world, La Maison des Trois Thés, to pick up a few things and to have a chat with Gilles, my tea guru. We usually talk about wine as much as we do tea—Gilles loves the champagnes of Selosse, the reds of Philippe Pacalet and just about any other wines that are terroir-driven and full of character. Today, after we speculated a little about Drappier's Sans Soufre, he showed me several of the new green teas from this season, and, well, I could hardly resist.

I tend to be seasonal about my tea drinking, choosing lighter teas in the summertime and more substantial and complex teas in the winter. With the cold weather that has persisted throughout this spring in northern France, I've continued to brew a range of oolongs and pu-er quite late into the year (I almost never drink black teas, aside from the occasional estate-grown Darjeeling). I hadn't even given a thought to green tea yet until Gilles mentioned it today, but since the sun has finally come out this week (24°C, or about 75°F, here in Paris at the moment), it seems highly appropriate.

Thus I found myself in possession of 50 grams of brand-new 2009 Anji Bai Cha, a green tea from Zhejiang province in eastern China. Bai cha means white tea, although it refers to the name of the cultivar rather than the tea itself, as this is pungently, unmistakably green. Bai cha always makes me think of spring—it's typically picked in early April (sometimes late March), and its fresh, snappy flavors are brightly lively and refreshing. This is the Hirsch Grüner Veltliner #1 of tea, its brisk aromas of pea shoots and young green asparagus touched by a deft, subtly honeyed sweetness, its vivacity and lightness of body concealing a discreet complexity. Even just the color seems vivid and vibrant. In this area of Zhejiang the soil is rocky and mineral-rich, and while it may be as difficult to conjecture about a mineral character in tea as it is for the average layman to wrap his mind around minerality in wine, there is a certain tautness and urgency here that feels distinctly stony—Muscadet grown on schist, riesling planted on the Wachau's Urgestein terraces or assyrtiko found in Santorini's volcanic soils might be cognate. Right up my alley, of course. I'm going to enjoy drinking this all summer long.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sake Vessels

In the context of wine, I think about glassware a lot. I believe that anyone with a discriminating palate can readily tell the difference when the same wine is poured into two differently-shaped glasses, and therefore, that the glass you serve your wine in makes a difference in how you perceive and appreciate it.

I haven't paid as much attention to the same sort of differences with sake, although my Japanese friends have assured me that they exist. As sake gains popularity in the Western world, it's become fashionable in some places to serve it in a wine glass rather than a traditional sake o-choko, the small, squat cup seen in this photo. The explanation, entirely plausible to me, is that the complexity and intensity of top-level ginjoshu is better expressed in a larger glass, as the tiny choko is simply too small to allow the flavors to develop properly. I always sort of went along with this—I mean, I wouldn't serve wine in a choko, so why top-quality sake?

A few days ago I was drinking an excellent junmai ginjo, the Sato No Homare (Pride of the Village) by Sudo Honke, from Ibaraki prefecture. The oldest brewery in Japan, Sudo Honke has been making sake for 850 years, and the current president of the company, Yoshiyasu Sudo, is the 55th generation of his family to occupy that position. Needless to say, they've learned a thing or two about making sake by now.

The Pride of the Village has been one of my favorite junmai ginjos ever since I first tasted it almost a decade ago. Made entirely of Yamadanishiki, Japan's most renowned variety of sake rice, it's polished to a ratio of 50 percent, which seems to give it finesse while retaining just enough guts and stuffing to let you know that it's real ginjo, not ginjo that secretly wants to be daiginjo. Although it's reasonably dry (nihonshudo of +3, if you want to know), it's quite fruity in flavor, with notes of pearskins and guava above the more savory nuances such as snap peas, green lentil and aniseed that lurk underneath. It feels full in body and dark in tone, possessing a brooding, virile energy and subtly complex detail.

At least that's how it tastes in the o-choko.

I poured it into a Spiegelau wine glass for comparison, expecting the aromas to blossom and the complex flavors to further emerge. While it's true that there was more presence of aroma in the wine glass, it took on a completely different character, turning more grain-like, rice-y, almost like Rice Krispies. It also felt heavier—there was more of it, but it was less focused and less harmonious. On the palate, it turned into a startlingly different beverage, and while I'm already well-accustomed to expecting changes between different types of drinking vessels, even I was shocked at how dramatic the sake was altered between these two. Not only did the flavors change, turning more savory, saline and even bitter in the wine glass, but the texture completely changed as well, feeling soft, blowsy and a little soapy. Returning to the choko, the sake felt much more vibrant and lively, with a taut, upright structure and a longer, cleaner finish.

I'm not saying that all sake would behave this way, mind you. This is only one experience. But it's given me a whole new respect for the o-choko, not to mention an increased interest in experimentation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

ChampagneGuide.net on A Suitable Wardrobe

Will Boehlke featured ChampagneGuide.net yesterday on his blog, A Suitable Wardrobe. If you don't know it, A Suitable Wardrobe is the internet's finest source of information on men's clothing and classic men's style, with daily posts on anything from bespoke shirts to handmade shoes. It's one of the only blogs of any kind that I read every day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Japanese Belgian Beer

In Paris this weekend, I stopped at Kioko to fortify myself with some Japanese supplies to take back to the countryside, where no such things exist. Among the items that I walked out with was this bottle of Owa, a pale ale that, despite it's Japanese label, is brewed in Belgium.

Supposedly this is made at the Brasserie de la Senne (De Zenne Brouwerij) in Brussels, but on the label it says, in English, "beer for Japanese Food by Japanese Brewer in Belgium". Maybe the De Zenne guys brew it for him? Maybe he rents out a bit of space in their brewery? Beats me. Owa Beer's website is still under construction, so there's no real info to be found yet.

At any rate, it's delicious, with a pleasantly caramelly, whiskey-like nose and a pervasive bitterness that I find highly refreshing. It's fairly light in body, and only 5% alcohol—for Belgium that's practically like water. I can't speak about the "beer for Japanese Food" part, as I didn't drink it until after dinner, but with its zesty bitterness and relatively light weight, it seems plausible. There's something about this that is not only bitter but also umami in tone, which might sound strange for a beer, but it's actually quite appealing.

Unfortunately they only had these little 33-cl bottles. Wish I had bought two. Or three. Or six.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Out for a Walk


I took this photo of old meunier vines in Dizy as I was out for an afternoon walk today. We've enjoyed a few sunny days this week in Champagne, but the clouds are moving in, and unfortunately it seems like rain is on the way. Lately, though, the leaves have been proliferating like crazy on the vines, as they should, and all in all it makes Champagne a more cheerful place after the drab, colorless winter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oishinbo: A la Carte

The third volume of Oishinbo: A la Carte, subtitled Ramen & Gyoza, was released today. I don't have it yet, since I live in the middle of freakin' nowhere (ahem) out in the French countryside, far from any bookstore that might carry English translations of Japanese mangas. But happily, it will be in my hands within a week.

If you don't know it, Oishinbo is a massively popular Japanese comic written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki. What's striking about it is that it's all about food and drink, and if you're at all interested in food, drink, Japanese culture and cuisine, or all of the above, it can hardly fail to delight you. First published in 1983, Oishinbo (which translates as something akin to "The Gourmet") traces the adventures of Yamaoka Shiro, a journalist for the Tozai News. For the newspaper's 100th anniversary, Yamaoka has been placed in charge of creating the "Ultimate Menu", designed to showcase the very best of Japanese cuisine. Yamaoka is cynical, bored and a little lazy, but he possesses a sophisticated palate and a keen understanding of food thanks to having been trained from a young age by his father, Kaibara Yuzan. Kaibara is the founder of The Gourmet Club, the most renowned gastronomic society in the country, and is revered for his palate, the sophistication of which is unrivaled, as well as for his unparalleled knowledge of all things culinary. (He's also known for his exquisite pottery and his fierce temper.) Unfortunately, Kaibara and Yamaoka bitterly detest one another, and much of the story is built around their rivalry and their various competitions with each other. As you follow the quest of Yamaoka and his friends, you are simultaneously treated to an entertaining, informative and articulately detailed lesson in the methods, ingredients, culture and philosophies of Japanese cuisine.

As Oishinbo has been running for 25 years, with over 100 publications so far, it wasn't practical to translate the entire collection into English. What the publisher, Viz Media, has done is to compile a selection of editions arranged around various themes: the first of this A la Carte series, released in January 2009, was entitled Japanese Cuisine, presenting an introduction to the fundamentals of Japanese food, such as dashi (stock), knife skills and sashimi. The second was Sake, which, despite its name, covered not only sake but also other drinks such as wine and awamori (an Okinawan distilled liquor).

As I don't read Japanese, I cannot compare the A la Carte editions to the originals, but the format seems to be working out well. Despite the original entries not being originally consecutive, they still trace a cohesive storyline, without feeling jarring or incomplete. There's also a healthy collection of endnotes in the back of the book that fill you in on key background elements to the story, as well as explanations of various Japanese terms and culinary concepts. The approach to food is highly sophisticated, and while the overall artwork is rather simple and utilitarian, the depictions of food and of sake and wine labels are wonderfully detailed. The text is educational without being overly didactic, and it's humorous and light-hearted enough to keep everything flowing. As the comic is republished in its original format, with English text simply replacing the Japanese, you have to read the book from right to left (that includes reading panels from right to left, as well as individual dialogue bubbles), which takes some getting used to, although it's not all that difficult.

I'm looking forward to future releases already in the works: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi (July 14), Vegetables (September 8), The Joy of Rice (November 17) and Izakaya: Pub Food (January 19, 2010). In the meantime, I'll soon be reading Ramen & Gyoza, and trying not to drool on the pages.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Duval-Leroy's Maestro Closure

Jeffrey Iverson just wrote about Duval-Leroy's new Maestro closure in Time magazine. I still haven't seen an actual bottle yet, but from looking at photos I've got to say—its major drawback is that it's really ugly. Will consumers be willing to accept a big lever affixed to the side of their champagne bottles? We'll see. I'm looking forward to testing one of these for myself in a few weeks.

Friday, May 15, 2009

ChampagneGuide.net in the SF Chronicle

Jon Bonné wrote about ChampagneGuide.net yesterday in The Cellarist, the wine blog of the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Surely a Sign of the End of Days

Curious—I just opened a bottle of champagne essentially on autopilot, hardly giving much thought to the process. As I grasped the cork and prepared to twist the bottle, the cork flew out into my hand with a ferocious pop, which surprised me a little. (After all, I generally presume that I actually do know how to properly open a bottle of champagne by now.) I poured the wine into my glass, holding the cork in my other hand, but there was something that didn't seem quite right.

Upon examining the cork, I realized the problem—it's upside-down. It's a Mytik cork, which has a pronounced bevel on the top to accommodate the plaque. As you can see in this photo, the bevel, as well as the branding of the word "Mytik", is on the bottom. Unlike regular champagne corks, Mytik corks are made of the same material all the way through, so it's technically no big deal, but it's distinctly odd.

I don't know why the cork jumped out of the bottle. Maybe it didn't sit right inside the wire cage. Or maybe it was longing to restore its proper equilibrium, bringing itself once again into harmonious balance with the greater order of the natural world. Maybe it was just feeling indignant about being carelessly shoved in there upside-down and leaped out looking around for some ass to kick.

The wine is fine, anyway, and the cork has gone up on my wall of little oddities (alongside, you know, the bezoar, the shrunken head and the life-size replica of the Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom). I wonder, though, what would happen if you put a regular champagne cork into a bottle upside-down? I imagine that the composite part of the cork has a different porosity and character than the miroir, which is actually designed to be in contact with the wine. Have any of you ever drunk a champagne with an upside-down cork?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Jean Milan on ChampagneGuide.net

I've added a profile and tasting notes for Jean Milan on ChampagneGuide.net, bringing the total number of currently featured producers to 110. The most prominent estate in the village of Oger (and the highest in quality, in my opinion), Jean Milan produces a range of champagnes that are entirely Oger grand cru, with the exception of a rosé made with purchased pinot noir.

The current lineup feels a little rounder and fuller in body than usual for Milan's wines, although it remains to be seen whether this is a trend or merely an aberration. Included in my profile are notes for the Grande Réserve 1864, a brand-new cuvée vinified entirely in barrel, as well as reviews of the newly-released 2004 Terres de Noël and Symphorine. The single-vineyard Terres de Noël in particular is a champagne that blanc de blancs aficionados will definitely want in their cellar, and a fine example of this site's distinctive terroir.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Grati's 2008 Olive Oils


I have been tasting and buying the olive oils of the Grati family, as well as other fine Tuscan olive oils, for over a decade. While there are high-quality olive oils made in many regions of the world, Tuscan oil is particularly distinctive for its richness, complexity and character, and those from top producers such as Grati can demonstrate individual personalities as detailed and as terroir-driven as the region's wines.

Located in the Rufina zone just to the east of Florence, the Grati estate produces oil under their own label for commercial distribution, but for consumers in the United States, the real joy is seeking out Grati's three single-grove olive oils selected and distributed by the Rare Wine Company: Monte, Prunatelli and Vetrice. The Rare Wine Company recently released their 2008 olive oil offerings, and as I was eagerly anticipating this trio from what is by all accounts an outstanding olive oil vintage, I brought them along as a minor sideshow when brooklynguy invited me over for a magnificently delicious dinner a few nights ago.

Monte, Prunatelli and Vetrice all lie on the south- and southwest-facing hillsides of the Grati estate, and all are planted primarily with the Frantoio variety. The Rufina subzone is noticeably cooler than others in the area (think about the elegant character of Rufina wines versus the fuller-bodied style of Chianti from the Classico region), and while the overall elevation here is already higher than average, Grati's sites are even higher than most—both Monte and Prunatelli lie at about 500 meters above sea level, while Vetrice is slightly lower. This results in oils of great purity and finesse.

Grati's Monte is one of my favorite olive oils in the world, consistently demonstrating a remarkable elegance and a fine, subtle complexity of character. The 1999 Monte, from a great vintage, was an epiphany of sorts for me when I tasted it in the spring of 2000, and ever since then it has been the first oil I buy for myself every year. In this decade, 2004 turned out to be another standout vintage—cooler years tend to bring out more complex flavors and more overall finesse, and the 2004 Monte was superb. In 2008, the Monte is unusually grassy and peppery, and in some ways I feel that it has the most assertive personality of the trio this year. With its silky texture and understated harmony, I normally find the Monte to be the one most suitable to enjoying on its own, simply with bread, but the 2008 is unusually extroverted and intense, with bright notes of artichoke and freshly cut grass. This year I imagine I'll probably use it more with food, to finish a plate of beans, perhaps, or drizzle over grilled vegetables.

The 2008 Prunatelli, in contrast, is less extroverted than usual. I generally find this to be the most overtly peppery and pungent of the three, yet this year its notes of arugula and green peppercorn are surprisingly toned down. It does show a typical body, however—Prunatelli is typically a little bit bigger and richer in body than Monte, and the 2008 is no exception. While in years past I've often found the Prunatelli to be too intense to serve as a dipping oil, I quite enjoyed tasting the 2008 with a crusty ciabatta from Balthazar, especially due to its thick, luscious texture.

Overall, I found the 2008 Vetrice to be more classic in profile than the Prunatelli, showing the dark, resonant depth typical of this cru. When I compare Vetrice to the others, I always think of body and structure, and of deep, authoritative flavor. It's baritone in pitch compared to the alto of Prunatelli, Chambertin versus the Musigny of Monte. While the 2008 Vetrice is not quite as complex as the 2008 Monte, it demonstrates a great deal of character, its flavors of artichoke and snap pea creeping up slowly from underneath rather than attacking you immediately. As I gave my only bottle to brooklynguy, I'm not going to get to experiment with it this year, but my immediate instinct was that the Vetrice might be the most versatile of Grati's three oils from 2008. I'll leave it up to him to tell me later whether or not that's the case.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

Other than tea, I've probably drunk more sake than anything else here in NYC this past week, from Tedorigawa Yamahai Junmai at Kyo-ya to Takenotsuyu Junmai at Ushiwakamaru to a whole boatload of things at Sakagura, including the crazy and unusually rich Born Muroka Nama Genshu Junmai Daiginjo. Not only junmai (no added alcohol), but nama (unpasteurized), muroka (unfiltered) and genshu (undiluted) as well. And daiginjo, to top it all off. Born's website says that "Drinking Born sake will bring you visions of the future." I sort of hope not, but it was intriguing to taste nevertheless.

Last night at the Spring Tasting of the Akita Sake Club I tasted about 30 sakes, some great, some not. There were plenty of things to like, in virtually all imaginable categories of sake, but the standout of the tasting for me was the daiginjo from Nanbu Bijin, which is actually not even from Akita Prefecture but rather from Iwate, just next door. Mouth-fillingly fragrant and fruity while retaining an elegant sense of complexity and grace, it seems to perfectly balance the finesse of daiginjo with the full, softly-textured Nanbu Bijin style.

It was so good that we almost drank Nanbu Bijin again later in the evening over a splendid meal at Aburiya Kinnosuke. Perhaps my favorite restaurant in all of NYC, Aburiya Kinnosuke always features many insanely delicious things to eat, and last night's delicacies included grilled sea eel, tiny baby sardines and this delightfully striking and terrifically tasty amberjack head. I saw Nanbu Bijin's Tokubetsu Junmai on the list and was tempted. But of course we found plenty of other sakes to drink.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

London, Sherry and More Sherry

I spent the day tasting wine at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London—not exactly grueling, as there were some good wines, but it's always tiring nevertheless to taste close to 100 wines in one day. Let's just say that the post-dégustation beer at the pub across the street was particularly satisfying.

Out with friends tonight, I drank sherry for the first time on this London trip. (Two whole days in London without sherry! Almost unthinkable.) Both the Fino and Antique Oloroso from Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla, now owned by Norwegian Jan Pettersen, were quite good, if not exactly my style. Very rich, it seems, which isn't necessarily what I'm looking for. But they were both highly satisfying.

Speaking of sherry, the Sherry Council of America just conducted an online chat with César Saldaña, Director General of the Consejo Regulador of Jerez. The first question posed was mine—I am quoting the transcript of that section:
Moderator: The first question comes from Peter in France. Peter asks, "Why is Sherry filtered so heavily? Equipo Navazos has proven with their La Bota wines the Sherry can be shipped even without a heavy filtration. So why don’t more companies offer en rama Sherries or try to filter less heavily?"

César Saldaña: The main reason why many houses tend to filter their Finos and Manzanillas is because they try to enlarge as much as possible the shelf life of the wine.

But you are right, Peter. Heavy filtering is something that improves the shelf life but also has an impact on the wine's intrinsic characteristics.

This is why more and more companies are offering "en rama" wines with very little filtering. Obviously, this requires a much better control of the distribution system so that the wine gets to the consumer within a much more limited shelf time.

OK, decent answer, especially considering that it's politically sensitive and that he has to be diplomatic about it. But this is curious: "This is why more and more companies are offering 'en rama' wines with very little filtering." Really? Other than Barbadillo, of course, do you know of any other bodegas that are currently offering en rama wines in commercial distribution?