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 on A Suitable Wardrobe

Will Boehlke featured 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 in the SF Chronicle

Jon Bonné wrote about 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

I've added a profile and tasting notes for Jean Milan on, 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.