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


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.