Saturday, February 28, 2009

Question of the Week: Biodynamics and Acidity

Earlier this week, I went up to Craon de Ludes to taste some 2008 vins clairs with Raphaël Bérèche. Bérèche is scrupulous about vinifying his various parcels separately in order to preserve their distinctive identities of terroir, and he also vinifies wines in both barrel and tank, making for a diverse collection of base wines. Furthermore, he is becoming increasingly focused on natural viticulture—no chemical herbicides or pesticides have been used since 2004, and since 2007 he has begun farming a portion of his vines biodynamically. An intriguing component of this is that for the past two years it has been possible to compare his vins clairs from biodynamic parcels with those from other parcels on similar terroirs (which are now essentially farmed organically).

2008 is a classic Champagne vintage in many ways, not the least of which is that after a decade of somewhat kinder, gentler vins clairs, we’re back to that tooth-clattering, enamel-stripping briskness that one expects from five month-old still wines harvested at 10.5 degrees close to the 50th parallel. Among the wines that we tasted was a chardonnay from a biodynamic parcel in Ludes—we tasted this wine from four different barrels, and while each of the four barrels had a slightly different personality, a consistent theme was that the acidity was even more notably pronounced in these wines than in the other chardonnays from Ludes that were not farmed biodynamically.

I’ve noticed this happening with many biodynamic wines around the world, irrespective of variety or region. Some winemakers say that their biodynamic parcels consistently produce wines of higher acidity, while others say that the acidity is analytically comparable between their biodynamic parcels and their other ones, but the perception of acidity in the biodynamic wines is somehow always more pronounced. Either way, the acidity almost always feels higher in a biodynamic wine. What do you think are the reasons for this?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Besotted Twittering and Other Tweets

So I finally gave in. I’m too much of a tech junkie to not have a Twitter account, and anyway, doesn’t my iPhone need yet another app? Or you could say I’m basically just preventing all of the other Peter Liems of the world (and they are out there) from taking the username peterliem.

My friend and colleague Wolfgang Weber did point out that unbeknownst to each other, we both started our blogs at around the same time, and now we’ve joined Twitter at the same time. Coincidence? We’re just twins separated at birth, Wolfgang and I.

Twitter is a curious thing. It’s not that I care about what you’re doing all of the time, and I highly doubt that you care about what I’m doing all of the time. If you do, I’m a little bit afraid of you. But somehow I can vaguely sense the potential of this all being somewhat useful, someday. Or not.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

1993 Delamotte Blanc de Blancs

I stopped in at Salon/Delamotte in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger this morning to taste a few wines, and was very pleased when Jean-Baptiste Cristini, export director for the two houses, generously opened a 1993 Delamotte Blanc de Blancs that he happened to have lying about in the fridge.

I often feel that Delamotte is a highly underestimated house. It’s a quiet, discreet style of champagne, and I’ll admit that it took me many years to reach the point where I felt I properly understood the wines. They are not champagnes that are well-suited to blind tastings (although you could argue that none are), nor do they show well in large, group environments such as trade tastings, as their delicate, introspective character is often overwhelmed. Due to this, they are sometimes interpreted as being insubstantial, which I think is not the case. Just because someone doesn’t speak loudly doesn’t mean that they haven’t got anything to say. You just have to be paying attention.

This 1993, however, was anything but shy, demonstrating an unusually opulent and generous depth of aroma for a Delamotte champagne. It had come from some old stock that had been languishing unclaimed in the cellars, and Cristini had seen fit to appropriate some bottles because, well, wine is for drinking. In addition, it had been disgorged sometime in 1999—it seemed that ten years of post-disgorgement aging had filled this out in both amplitude and complexity, resolving the fruit flavors and allowing them to evolve with refinement and richesse, but also reinforcing the sense of minerality and the inimitably vibrant chalkiness so typical of grand cru chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. Today this was at an absolutely perfect point of drinking, balancing a lingering freshness of primary fruit with more developed aromas of honeycomb, toffee and vanilla bean. Delamotte’s wines usually take at least fifteen minutes to half an hour after opening to expand and reveal themselves, but this was immediately all seductive and come-hither from the get-go, and I don’t see how anyone who professes to appreciate mature champagne could fail to be charmed by this wine. I imagined it alongside some equally refined preparation of langoustines and white truffles, the mature succulence of the wine playing off of the sweetness of the shellfish, while the complex, tertiary notes of old chardonnay complement the earthy fragrance of the truffles. Cristini did not go into the back and whip this out for me, unfortunately. But if I saw this wine on the list of a Michelin-starred restaurant, I would be inclined to explore its possibilities.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

2009 American Wine Blog Awards

My blog has been nominated for an award in the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards, hosted by Tom Wark’s Fermentation. It’s a finalist in the Best Single-Subject Wine Blog category.

Which is ironic, as I generally write about whatever I feel like writing about. But I suppose it’s true: whatever I’m writing about, I’m really just talking about champagne.

I’m very honored to have been nominated as a finalist, regardless of whether or not I actually win. Voting ends on March 4th. Thanks to all of you who read my blog, and thanks to those who nominated me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Barometric Pressure

Fascinating comments on yesterday's post. This is the real pleasure of blogging, not to hear myself talk, but to make you guys talk.

Continuing on the theme of pressure....

As a professional wine taster, I often find myself sensitive to changes in the weather: when the barometer is dropping, wines can have a different feel, a different balance. They can sometimes feel heavier and blurrier on the palate, and sometimes I think that tannins are more highly pronounced and that acidity is less pronounced. I notice this most keenly when tasting in NYC, thanks to the capricious climate there, and at Wine & Spirits magazine we tend to taste fairly large quantities of wines at one time, which also makes you pay attention. I am willing to accept that it might actually be me and my tasting faculties that are affected by the weather, but I’m not entirely sure that it doesn’t affect the wines as well.

Some people have told me that this idea is ridiculous, and that it exists only in my head. However, as I do taste quite a bit of wine, and have found this to occur to me with some regularity, I’m inclined to believe in my head. What is reality but perception, anyway?

I notice this occurring with any sort of wine that I taste, but I wonder if champagne, with its pressure in the bottle, is any more susceptible to this sort of variability than other wines?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wine and Airplanes

A friend asked me recently about taking wine on airplanes, and it made me think. I fondly remember traveling in the 20th century, when you could pack your carry-on luggage with eight or ten bottles on a transatlantic flight (and then try to act all nonchalant while walking through customs, pretending as if you really didn’t have 35 pounds of liquid and glass hanging off of your shoulder). Obviously those days are forever in the past. Soon you will be prohibited from carrying absolutely anything on board, unless you pay 50 dollars per pound and have it inspected fourteen times by people whose job it is to actually prevent you from reaching your gate until fifteen minutes after your plane takes off.

Now I put my wine in a six-pack cardboard shipper and check it in. (I carry on all of my shoes, though, complete with wooden trees.) It changes the type of wine that you can bring—in the past I used to carry mostly old and rare wines, since what’s the point of taking a common wine to someplace where you can just buy the same bottle anyway? When you check the wine in, it gets shaken around much more, which is annoying, and so now I tend to choose wines that are younger and less fragile but that are still maybe rare enough that people at my destination aren’t able to easily obtain them.

But when my friend asked me about this, it made me wonder, what about the pressure? Does the act of transporting bottles in a luggage compartment at 30,000 feet have an effect on the wine? I suppose the compartment is pressurized, so it’s the same as inside the cabin? What happens to the pressure inside a bottle of champagne? I’ve never opened a bottle of champagne on a plane, nor have I paid much attention when flight attendants do.

Being woefully ignorant of the physical science that governs such things, I really have no answers, but I’m sure that some of you do. Perhaps I could persuade the Chief of Lab Science to refer this matter to his Department of Aviation and Aeronautics?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Teobaldo Cappellano

Yesterday I received the sad news from Masaaki Tsukahara, of Teobaldo Cappellano's Japanese importer Racines, that Cappellano had passed away on Friday. I had long dreamt of one day meeting Cappellano, but I never had the opportunity; naturally, I had been, and still am, a dedicated admirer of his wines.

Today, Kevin McKenna, of Cappellano's American importer Louis/Dressner, posted a moving portrait of Teobaldo Cappellano on the Louis/Dressner website.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Larmandier-Bernier’s Blended Vintage Champagne

I was looking back through some old notebooks today, doing research for some writing I’m working on, and happened to stumble upon some comments by Pierre Larmandier from several years ago, regarding the vintage champagne that he used to make. Pierre always has the most terrifically interesting things to say, and I often wish that I’d brought along a tape recorder to record all of the conversations we’ve ever had together.

Larmandier used to be in the Club Trésors de Champagne, back when it was called the Club des Viticulteurs—his mother joined the Club in 1974, making Larmandier-Bernier one of the earliest members of the organization. Around the beginning of the current decade, Pierre decided to leave the Club, and while it was not a decision that he took lightly, he felt that it was necessary for him to go his own way. The 1996 was the last of Larmandier-Bernier’s vintage champagnes to be labeled as Spécial Club, and although there were several vintages of wines in the distinctive Club bottles remaining in the cellar, these were released later with a plain white label.

The Club wine used to be made of equal parts Cramant, Chouilly and Vertus, which on the face of it, ought to complement each other quite well. Chouilly tends to be round and rich, especially the side closer to Cramant, while the Cramant parcels to the south and east of the village itself combine strength with finesse, and Larmandier has old vines here. Vertus is leaner, more linear, with a more pronounced acidity that gives it a lot of focus and structure.

However, Pierre told me that with his new methods of working—biodynamics, natural yeasts, et cetera—this proportion didn’t work anymore. “The wines fight each other,” he said. He cited natural yeasts as perhaps being a primary culprit in this, as he had stopped using cultured yeasts for the primary fermentation beginning in 1999. “Cultured yeasts make more homogenous wines,” he said. “They tend to be easier to blend.” His new wines, though, were now too strong in their respective individual characters to play well with each other.

The last of the blended vintage champagnes from Larmandier-Bernier was the 2000; since then, his two vintage wines (one of which isn’t even vintage-dated) are both highly terroir-specific. I used to like the Larmandier Spécial Club quite a bit, but I don’t miss it. I like the Vieille Vigne de Cramant and Terre de Vertus even better for their individuality of expression and uncompromising personalities.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fractioning the Fractions

I was tasting this morning with Yannick Doyard in Vertus, and while we were working our way through his current range of outstanding champagnes, he talked about how he’s come to reevaluate his ideas about pressing.

In Champagne, a traditional press holds 4,000 kilograms of grapes, a fixed quantity called a marc. One marc yields precisely 2,550 liters of juice, fractioned into two categories: the first 2,050 liters is called the cuvée, and is considered to be the finest portion; the last 500 liters is called the taille, and while it’s legal to use this for making champagne, some houses choose to use it and others don’t. (A third category pressed after the initial 2,550 liters, called the rebêche, cannot be used for champagne, and must be sent to the distillery.) Historically, Champenois barriques have been 205 liters in size, so that the cuvée from one marc equals exactly ten barrels.

Pressing in Champagne is a long and laborious process, and the pressing of one marc takes around four hours from beginning to end. (Having observed this firsthand during the harvest a few months ago, I can personally attest to how boring this is to watch.) Each marc goes through multiple pressings, or serres. In each serre, the press comes down, squeezing out some juice and compacting all of the grapes into a big cake, and then that cake has to be separated and fluffed up in a process called the retrousse (as seen in this photo, taken at René Geoffroy), readying the grapes to be pressed again. This process is repeated several times: the cuvée itself involves the first three serres, and the serre after that is used for the taille.

Like many other top-quality growers, Doyard keeps only the cuvée for his champagnes and sells all of his taille to the négoce. However, he breaks these two distinctions down even further, and in reality he doesn’t even think anymore in terms of cuvée and taille. Doyard believes that the creation of the traditional measurement of 2,050 liters was based simply on the logistics of having a 205-liter barrel, and had nothing to do with making better wine. “It was a mathematical decision,” he says, “not a qualitative one.” Now, he separates the serres instead, keeping only the first two for his vintage wines. “I’ve seen a significant qualitative difference between the first two serres and the third,” he says, “so now I always vinify the third serre separately.” In fact, for a new wine that he’s begun to make in 2008, called the Clos de l’Abbaye, he used only the first serre, meaning that his 50-are parcel in the Clos ultimately yielded just four barrels of wine.

Doyard admits that it’s easier to be this exacting when you work in small quantities, and especially when you vinify in wood. “It’s a big advantage to work with small barrels,” he says. “If you work in a traditional winery with lots of tanks, imagine how difficult and expensive it would be to keep track of all of these separate little things.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Henri Goutorbe 1922-2009

Henri Goutorbe, of the champagne estate in Aÿ, passed away on Friday, 6 February. He was 86 years old. Goutorbe began bottling and selling grower champagne under his own label in the late 1940s, from vines that his father, Emile, had been able to purchase after the First World War. The family already had an established nursery business, for the propagation and distribution of vine cuttings, and Goutorbe developed his champagne estate while continuing to carry on the family’s other activities.

Both businesses are still owned and managed by the Goutorbe family: Champagne Henri Goutorbe is a highly-regarded, 25-hectare grower-estate with vineyard holdings in Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and other villages in the Grande Vallée de la Marne, while the pépinière, or vine nursery, is one of the most significant in Champagne today.

Henri Goutorbe’s son René has been at the helm of the estate since 1970, and continues to run it today with his wife Nicole and their children Elisabeth and Etienne.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Put Away the Saber

In general, I don't like sabering champagne. It's flashy and ostentatious, and I don't like flashy and ostentatious things. Plus it's just obnoxious. Sommeliers with sabers tend to be the wine world equivalent of frat boys looking to show off, and waving a big, long sword around just smacks of overcompensation.

If you're intent on whacking the top off of your champagne bottle, you've got to do it with style. My friend Josh, author of the Wine Tastings Guide website and its newsletter, The Poor Man's Guide to Fine Wine, shows us a classy way to do it with a bottle of Gimonnet's 2002 Fleuron:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Benjamin Dagueneau

One last post on the Loire before getting back to Champagne. I was due in Paris on Sunday the 8th, but I was keen on accompanying the Dressner gang for a visit to the Didier Dagueneau estate in St-Andelain along the way. As all the wine world knows, Didier Dagueneau was killed last September in a tragic accident, when the ultralight plane he was piloting crashed in the Dordogne, in southern France. His children Louis-Benjamin and Charlotte have taken over the reins of the estate, and I think it’s fair to say that the wine world is collectively holding its breath to see what happens.

I had met Benjamin briefly once before, on a previous visit, but had never spoken with him. He has been working alongside his father for the last four years or so, and certainly knows all the ins and outs of the estate. Yet this can’t be an easy position for him to be in—not only has he just lost his father, but he also faces the impossible pressure of following in the footsteps of a legendary personality. Didier was an icon, a giant of a figure not only in the Loire Valley, but in the world of wine. He can never be replaced, but surely this is not Benjamin’s goal. His responsibility now is to continue producing wines at the estate, opening a new chapter in its history, and while this may have come sooner than anyone, including Benjamin himself, would have liked, the early indications are that he will run the estate with thoughtfulness, intelligence and care.

We began by tasting the 2007s, which as a collection impressed me a great deal with their impeccable balance and intense expression of terroir. I often prefer these quieter vintages at Dagueneau, where the alcohol is low but the wines are still ripe and complex, showing a compelling detail and harmony. The Blanc Fumé de Pouilly was still in tank, waiting to be bottled in a few days, and it was immediately, effortlessly inviting, making me want to drink my entire glass and ask for a refill. The recently-bottled Pur Sang, from glaciated, well-draining clay and flint soils, felt subtle and airy, all silk and finesse, with gorgeously fragrant length; Buisson Renard, from heavier soils at the foot of the St-Andelain butte, clearly demonstrated the contrast in terroir with its richer body and more opulent texture, although this, too, felt very pure and racy in its undertone. The 2007 Sancerre Monts Damnés, the third vintage of this wine, expressed an even more pronounced contrast in soil: “The difference here isn’t really between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé,” said Benjamin. “It’s between calcaire and silex.” Dark in tone, almost brooding, with a broadly expansive fragrance and marvelous length on the finish, the 2007 Monts Damnés reflected all the majesty of this dramatically steep site. Returning to Pouilly-Fumé, the 2007 Silex was my pick for favorite wine of the vintage at Dagueneau—as great as the other wines were, the Silex demonstrated an extra dimension and complexity, with a breathtaking sense of grace and a poignant, subtly intense expression of soil. “It’s really the style of wine we like to make at the domaine, with a lot of freshness and tension,” says Benjamin. “Nowadays the demonstration of style is often a demonstration of force. People are looking for more power, more alcohol, more oak, more tannin. This is not at all what we seek. We’re looking for more drinkability. The sign of a good bottle is that you want to finish the whole thing.”

Tasting the 2008s in barrel proved to be no less compelling. Benjamin says that the 2008s resemble the 2007s, but there were some difficulties during the growing season, particularly with hail, and two wines in particular, Buisson Renard and Silex, were altered in character by hailstorms at the end of the flowering. I absolutely loved the Blanc Fumé, perfectly balanced and vibrant at 11.5 degrees of natural alcohol. Pur Sang, at a mere 12 degrees, was utterly profound in its expression, precision and sheer class: this is my favorite of Dagueneau’s 2008s, and the one I’m going to load up on. I’m not going to be able to ignore the Monts Damnés, however, with its sleek, stony raciness and incredible length.

Dagueneau wines are often noted for their concentration, perhaps because their vinosity and complexity make them stand out in a region that still produces too many overcropped and diluted wines. In fact, Didier Dagueneau was never a fan of ultra-concentration, and neither is his son. “Yields that are too high are of course bullshit,” says Benjamin, “but yields that are too low are also bullshit.” He was forced to confront low yields in 2008, however, due to the hail, with Buisson Renard being the wine most obviously affected: the vineyard produced a mere 15 hl/ha, and the resulting wine was harvested at 14.5 degrees of potential alcohol. What impresses me about this wine is that Benjamin decided to leave it the way it is, untampered with and unmanipulated, even though it’s not the style of wine he’s looking for. He could easily have chosen to blend it with some other barrels of lower-alcohol wines, but he left it alone because it’s a truer and more honest expression of what nature gave him in this vintage. The wine is terrific as well, feeling dense and ripe but perfectly balanced, without any sense of excess alcohol at all. The balance, in fact, reminded me of some of F.X. Pichler’s most successful wines in the late 1990s or the early part of this decade, where the label says 15 percent alcohol yet on the palate it feels like 13, as the alcohol is so perfectly integrated into the wine. Or, for a more direct comparison, Dagueneau’s wines from previous vintages: the 2006 Pur Sang was 14 percent alcohol, and that wine was terrific.

Dagueneau’s Silex comes from parcels of hard, dense clay and flint on the upper part of the St-Andelain hillside, and these were also hit by hail in this vintage, reducing yields to between 16 and 19 hl/ha. Like the Buisson Renard, this possesses an elevated level of alcohol (14.2 percent) yet also a lovely balance, perhaps due to both its rich depth of fruit and its unusually high acidity (6.2 g/l). It projects a feeling of great energy, both potential and kinetic, and even in this embryonic stage it already has a great deal to say. Benjamin thinks that it’s reminiscent of the 1996 Silex in its high sugars, high acidity and concentrated feel, and, well, that wine was outstanding, and still a pleasure to drink even today. He notes that the problem in selecting a date of harvest with highly concentrated wines such as these is really finding a balance of malic acidity and ripeness, as Dagueneau’s wines never undergo malolactic. “It’s no problem to wait for malic acidity to decrease when the grapes are at 12 degrees [of potential alcohol],” he says. “When they’re at 14 and you still feel that you have to wait for the malic, then that’s what gives you anxiety. We’d rather make a wine with a little more alcohol than we’d ideally like, rather than pick earlier and still have herbaceous flavors. There’s nothing worse than sauvignon with green flavors, like asparagus.”

This flexibility is one of Dagueneau’s greatest strengths, seeking to do what is right for the wine and working with nature rather than striving to impose willpower or force a preconceived pattern on it. At Dagueneau’s property in Jurançon this year, they picked the grapes for the 2008 Les Jardins de Babylone at only ten degrees of potential alcohol, since Benjamin felt that at that stage the grapes were already physiologically ripe and capable of making complete wine, without need of further concentration. He loves the results, and didn’t chaptalize the wine at all. “It has a balance like a German riesling,” he says. Unfortunately, he thinks that he will have problems getting the wine certified by the AOC due to its low alcohol, but he doesn’t really care. Somehow, I feel that his father would approve.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cross-Cultural Explorations

At the weekend market in Epernay yesterday, I picked up a dozen No. 4 Fines de Claires for lunch from my usual oyster lady. I normally buy No. 2s from her, but she was sold out by the time I arrived. I had half a bottle of champagne at home in the fridge from last night, a chardonnay-based blend from an obscure grower in the Sézanne, and a lunch of oysters and champagne is just about my idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon activity.

The champagne, though, wasn’t quite the right fit for the brininess of the oysters. The Sézanne tends to give wines of relatively broad texture and earthy minerality, and the 30 percent of pinot noir in this wine only amplified that feeling. I considered going down to the cellar to fetch a Côte des Blancs chardonnay, but I happened to have a bottle of sake in my fridge, the excellent Manjyu Junmai Daiginjo from Kubota. I knew that Niigata sake, with its rounded, polished character, would probably not be the ideal match for briny oysters either, but hey, a lunch of oysters and sake is just about my idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon activity as well.

The sake was delicious and the oysters were too, and I had no problem downing my baker’s dozen of bivalves (she always throws in an extra one). Later on that evening, however, I unexpectedly stumbled upon a much more intriguing pairing. I had cooked up some boudin blanc from Rethel, and on a whim, I began drinking the Manjyu rather than opening something else. It turned out to be an excellent match for the boudin—the soft, almost velvety texture of the sake seemed to complement the fatty texture of the sausages, with just enough of a subtle bite of alcohol and acidity to keep everything lively and prevent your palate from being overwhelmed with richness. In addition, the delicate flavor of the Manjyu, with its quiet, understated character typical of Niigata sake, provided a backdrop that was suitably engaging without being overly assertive, as after all, boudin blanc is hardly the most pungent or intensely flavored of sausages.

I love it when things like this happen. There’s something to be said for classical traditions, but it’s wonderful to be surprised by multiculturalism as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The DizyCam

I’m back home in Dizy, on a snowy morning. It’s only a very light dusting of snow, nothing dramatic—and in fact, for whatever reason it’s even less dramatic in this photograph than in reality. Apparently I missed all of the real stuff while I was away on my various travels. But my backyard and the vines beyond look nice, anyway.

Winegrowers say that vines like this cold weather in the wintertime. It’s a return to normalcy after the last two winters, which have both been exceptionally mild here in Champagne. Perhaps that means that the rest of the growing season will be more normal as well, although in these times, what exactly is normal, anyway? At the very least, people are expecting this vintage to be a great one, since it’s a year that ends in the number nine. We can only hope.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Le Ramen Chez Sapporo, Paris

I’m spending a few days in Paris on my way back home to Champagne from the Loire Valley, and yesterday I stopped in at Sapporo, on the rue Sainte-Anne, for a bowl of ramen. Now, any sort of non-French food in France is generally a distinctly disappointing experience, and particularly anything that has origins in East Asia. I’ve eaten at a few of the Japanese places on the rue Sainte-Anne before, and quite frankly, they’re mostly not very good. So my expectations were rock-bottom low. But the weather was damp and chilly, and I happened to be in the area, and the idea of ramen was mightily compelling.

Sapporo at least looks right—it’s crowded, with a counter to sit at so you can watch your ramen being made, and everybody who works there is Japanese. As it also serves yakisoba and various rice dishes, it’s not a dedicated ramen shop, which in Japan or even the United States might send up an immediate red flag. Here in Paris, however, which in terms of things Japanese is essentially a barbarian wilderness, it’s a detail that I am willing to overlook. I ordered chashu ramen, which arrived promptly, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was actually not all that bad. As you can see from this photo, the aesthetic is rather austere: shoyu broth, a copious amount of noodles, five slices of pork, a few slices of bamboo shoots and a little spinach for color. That’s fine. I like minimalism.

Comparing it to ramen in NYC (I feel, after all, that expat ramen should be gauged against other expat ramen, and not compared to the real thing back in the motherland), it made me think of Rai Rai Ken, although not nearly as good, particularly in the broth department. The aesthetic of overall simplicity is similar, however. Sapporo’s broth was delicious without being complex or particularly memorable, while the pork was actually pretty good, with much more charry flavor than its appearance might suggest. The noodles were rather lackluster, but they were at least cooked katame (roughly “al dente”), which is the way that I prefer them (since I eat slowly compared to a Japanese ramen eater, and the noodles continue to cook in the hot broth). I suppose that a test of quality as good as any is that I finished the whole bowl, which is more than I can say for other ramen places on the rue Sainte-Anne.

I realize that this is sort of like when Richard Juhlin or Tom Stevenson gives a sparkling wine 72 points and then insists that it’s really a worthwhile wine in its class and you ought to give it some attention, but I did leave the place satisfied, and I think I’ll even go back. Would I take my Japanese friends there? Not a chance. I doubt I would even take my ramen-loving gaijin friends there. But for a ramen junkie living in a barren ramen wasteland, Sapporo provides a fix that is acceptably pas mal.

Sapporo, 37 rue Sainte-Anne, Paris 1er

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Cellar

Last week at the Salon des Vins de Loire I tasted with Anthony Hwang of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, and he mentioned how winemaker Noël Pinguet has been experimenting with different techniques of pressing in order to obtain a higher-quality juice. Hwang said, “I’ve come to realize over the past few years with Noël that what winemakers always like to say, that wine is 95 percent made in the vineyards and five percent in the cellar, is really bunk. The pressing is so important, as is attention to detail throughout the cellar.”

I liked this statement, as I’ve also thought that cellar work is sometimes not emphasized as much as it should be. There’s no question that quality originates in the vineyard, and when a winegrower says that he or she cannot improve upon the quality of the grapes that are harvested, that is a true statement. People should obsess over viticulture, and I’m glad that they do. (Remember, I live in Champagne. We need as many people thinking about viticulture as possible in that region.) It’s also true that wine that ignores viticulture and is made largely in a winery (think of some mass-market champagnes or industrial brands from California and Australia) is lifeless and uninteresting to drink.

But sometimes I feel that it’s become unfashionable to talk about vinification, as if any action somehow automatically constitutes manipulation or spoofulation of the wine. Oftentimes you’ll hear winegrowers talk on and on about viticulture and then say, “After harvest, I do nothing.” (Of course, with some natural wines, this is quite literally true, with unfortunate consequences.)

I do think that a great wine is a combination of high-quality viticulture and diligent work in the cellars, and one without the other tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Wine, after all, doesn’t happen on its own—it’s a process of deliberate choices and actions by humans that guide the wine towards its final state of being. No matter how “natural” and “non-interventionist” you say you are, there is a certain minimum of human action and intervention that needs to take place, or it’s not wine. Grapes left completely to their own devices will turn into something that you would likely not want to drink. As a wine producer, you make decisions at every step of the way, and these decisions generally result in some sort of action. (Although even a decision to do nothing is still a decision.) Clearly some decisions are better than others, depending on the individual wine and the surrounding circumstances, and if two winemakers received identical lots of grapes, the one who made the better decisions would create the better wine. Even if you cannot improve upon the quality that Nature gives you in the vineyards, it’s up to you to maintain that level of quality. As Hwang puts it, “It’s true that you can’t make good wines from bad grapes. But I’ve had many bad wines from good grapes.”

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ramps and Esca

I’ve been in the Loire Valley this week, first at the Renaissance des Appellations tasting in Angers, then at the Salon des Vins de Loire. Then, you know, drinking.

Last year on a visit to Clos Roche Blanche in the Touraine, proprietor Didier Barrouillet told me about his experiments with planting wild leeks in the vines as an agent against esca, one of the most serious vineyard diseases facing France at the moment. Esca is a fungal disease that attacks the woody portions of the vine—sometimes it will kill the vine slowly, taking several years, but in esca’s most pernicious form the vine simply ceases production and dies within 12 months. Vines that are infected need to be uprooted and burned, and care must be taken to isolate them from contact with any other vines or vine material.

Vines, presumably esca-free, at Clos Roche Blanche

On another visit to Clos Roche Blanche this week, we talked about leeks some more. Up until now, sodium arsenite has been the only treatment against esca, but it’s so toxic that it was actually banned in 2001 as a carcinogen, and anyway, the use of such a product would be completely against Didier’s natural philosophies of viticulture. He cultivates a wide variety of plants in his vineyards, and among them are these little ramps, or wild leeks, that have traditionally grown in the area. “In the old days, everyone used to have leeks in their vineyards,” says Didier. “You would find them anywhere vines were grown.” These wild leeks put out an extensive network of micro-rhizomes, tiny tendrils that interact with the roots of the vines and exchange nutrients, and in addition, they appear to neutralize the three types of fungus that are responsible for esca, inhibiting their ability to spread. For the moment Didier is still cautious, noting that esca can retreat and attack again, and it takes time to observe the long-term effect of these leeks. “But so far,” he says, “they seem to be working. As long as they don’t get eaten by the hares, that is.”

Esca is particularly a problem in the southwest of France, but it’s spread around the rest of the country as well, and it’s estimated that five percent of France’s vineyards could currently be affected by the disease. Champagne is no exception, and it’s becoming increasingly more common when walking around in the vineyards to see the occasional dead vine here and there. Last year, Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet even showed me an entire block of vines in Hautvillers that needed to be pulled out and burned. I haven’t yet seen anyone planting leeks, but as more and more Champenois are moving towards an increasingly diverse array of cover crops in their vineyards, maybe someone ought to give it a try. Historically, vineyards have been part of a complex system of polyculture, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that vines began to be grown in complete isolation from other plant and animal life. One wonders what has been lost in the process.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Clos Rougeard, Chacé

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Co-plantation at René Geoffroy, cont.

So you might remember that Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Champagne René Geoffroy has planted a third of a hectare in Cumières with five different varieties. (I posted about it during the 2008 harvest.) On a visit to the cellars last week, I tasted the results in tank, where fermentation has long finished and the wine is hanging out waiting to be bottled. Having been present at the pressing of this new cuvée (the first year that Geoffroy has isolated this separately), and having tasted the juice coming out of the press back in September, I was particularly curious to see how this is coming along.

Geoffroy got the idea for doing this from Jean-Michel Deiss, who is probably the most notorious and outspoken advocate of co-plantation. Deiss’s theory is that when different varieties exist together in the same vineyard (planted in alternating vines, not separated into blocks) and are harvested and pressed together, the individual characters of each variety serve to cancel each other out, bringing a purer character of the terroir into the foreground. Geoffroy vinified this wine entirely in enameled steel tank, also with the idea of keeping as transparent a terroir expression as possible—he’s depicted fetching a sample from the tank to taste in the above photo. (That’s not my pink glove, by the way. In case you were wondering.)

I’ve been convinced over the years that Deiss’s theory can be true, with selected examples of his co-planted wines. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but the ones that work really do seem to have a certain transparency about them. I felt the same way when tasting this wine. It’s relatively rich in texture, clearly with sufficient ripeness (but not excessive ripeness, since I know you will ask), but where you might expect a burst of fruit flavor—especially from Cumières, which is always forward and fruity—there is a certain absence of fruit. It’s wrong to call it an absence, as nothing is missing. It feels as if it has depth, weight and presence, but like the Predator stalking all the tough guys in the jungle, you can see right through it. Perhaps where it demonstrates flavor is in how it’s clearly not made from just classic varieties—the fruit flavors are all knit together, virtually impossible to separate and individually distinguish, but there is an overall impression of a certain wildness, a feral, almost musky hint imparted by arbanne and petit meslier. Minerality? In spades. This area of Cumières always shows a certain dustiness: it’s chalky but not entirely so, feeling mingled with notes of earthier, more fertile and visceral things. It’s this mineral character that presents itself with full force on the palate, dominating the finish and feeling pure and vital.

Will this wine retain this intensity of expression after it’s been bottled and has undergone the prise de mousse? Who knows. Presumably so, but since we’re in uncharted waters here for Geoffroy, the only thing we can do is wait and see. I, for one, am eager to see this wine’s progress.