December 2008

… I’ll post an entry about these sparkling wines from Frank Family Vineyards in Napa Valley (separate from the “12 Days of Christmas” series) because the quality is extraordinary. These sparking wines are available only at the winery or through the winery’s website, so if you live in one of the states in which direct shipment is permitted — and it should be permitted in all states — here’s your chance. Each is produced in amounts of about 400 cases.
LL took one sniff and sip of the non-vintage Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley, and said, “Can this be our house champagne?” I couldn’t disagree. Made completely from pinot noir grapes, it offers an enticing color of tarnished gold infused with pale silvery-peach; the bubbles thrust upward in a constant stream. Aromas of fresh biscuits, hazelnuts and toasted almonds, lime blossom, cinnamon toast and orange zest are irresistible. In the mouth, this sparkling wine is very crisp, very taut, to the point of austerity. It presents that paradox of warm toasty spice and yeasty elements with cool finesse and nuance. It’s almost creamy yet vibrant with acidity, and in the finish, limestone and grapefruit take over, for an exquisite frisson of spare elegance. Exceptional, balletic, inspiring, and a steal for about $35.
The Frank Family Brut 1997, Carneros, a blend of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay, rested on the lees for eight years before being disgorged and readied for release. This is a substantial sparkling wine, dense with dimension and detail, yet never heavy, never obvious. It’s very individual, with that tannic sense of hazelnut and almond skin. a whiff of resin, an astringent herbal note, like dried thyme or rosemary, but with fatness of hazelnuts, the richness of fresh-baked bread and nutty yeast. it’s certainly full-bodied yet with real acidic edge and effervescent vibrancy, bright, crisp and clean. It might be lacking a tad in the finesse department, but it’s quite impressive, regal, dignified, except for a wild, untamed note of happy eccentricity. You sort of have to smell and taste it to believe it. Excellent. About $65.

So, it’s a little after 6 on New Year’s Eve. This is my final post for 2008. Happy New Year! Keep those cards and letters coming in for 2009. And … be careful out there tonight.

The first person who made hash must have thought, “O.K., I have these leftover potatoes and some leftover roast, now what?” Beef hash after going into the pan. And he or she diced those leftovers, fried ’em up together with a little onion, and voila! there was the first hash, certainly a stable of the dinner table when I was a lad.

So, I had the leftover rib-roast from Christmas dinner, with the chopped carrots and onions it had cooked in, as well as a bag of raw shredded sweet potato from a dish LL had made. “Eureka!” I thought. So, borrowing a few tips from The New Best Recipe (America’s Test Kitchen, $35), I boiled some diced potatoes in salted water with a bay leaf, and rendered some chopped bacon for the fat and flavor. Into the pan with the bacon went some chopped onions and then after five or six minutes some thyme and garlic. Then the meat, which I had diced, the potatoes, the roasted carrots and onions and a handful of the shredded sweet potato. I poured a little, I mean just a little, heavy cream into the mixture to help bind the material and then pressed it down into the pan, a non-stick skillet, with a spatula. The first image shows the hash at this stage. Beef hash gets nice and crusty.

What you want is for the hash to brown enough that it begins to form a crust on the bottom. Then you turn the hash over, not as one big cake but in segments, and mix the crusty part in with the rest. Do this four or five times over eight to 10 minutes so there’s a good proportion of crust throughout the mass of the hash. The second image shows the hash when the crust is starting to form and I’ve stirred it through the mixture.

When the hash gets to this point, you break an egg for each person on top, cover the pan, and let the egg cook until just set, so that when the diner sticks a fork in the yolk, it will flow across and into the hash. I like my eggs cooked more that “just set” — I’m an “over hard” egg guy — but anyway, this classic combination made a great dinner.

Thinking that a simple, delicious meal deserved a simple, delicious wine, I opened a bottle of Red truck Zinfandel 2006, Mendocino County, but it seemed out-of-character for the grape and close to bland, so we abandoned it and opened the Henry’s Drive Pillar Box Red 2007, from Padthaway in Australia. This is a shame. The Red Truck label was created by Cline Cellars in 2002 to handle an inexpensive blend of syrah, petite sirah, cabernet franc, mourvèdre and grenache; the wine was robust and flavorful and deservedly popular. The Red Truck brand was sold to 585 Wine Partners in 2005 and is now an expanded line-up that includes zinfandel, petite sirah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio; do Americans love pinot grigio so much that every cheap label has to offer one? The Red Truck wines sell for about $11. The puzzle is that one of Red Truck’s stablemates at 585 Wine Partners is a winery, Picket Fence, where Don Van Staaveren crafts wonderful sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.
Pillar Box Red 2007 is a blend of syrah (shiraz) 65 percent, cabernet sauvignon 25 percent and merlot 10 percent. It’s hearty, spicy, dark and flavorful, bursting with intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and plum fruit that becomes more roasted and fleshy as the moments pass. There’s a core of tar and bitter chocolate, and a sort of root tea element permeated by briers and brambles. It was terrific with the hash. Very Good and great value. About $12.

Numerous people, perhaps millions, will rush out tonight in a mad abandoned attempt to bring a dismal year to a close and welcome a year that has so many expectations attached to it that if it had any sense it would stay in its cave and never come out. If ever a year was required to be All Things to All People, 2009 is it. So good luck.

New Year’s Eve requires bubbles, and assuming that you’re not going to go out and get so drunk in your search for oblivion that you don’t give a good goddamn about what you slosh into your mouth, here are some recommendations.
Say you’re hosting a party the size of which would accommodate the complete cast of The Wire (including Snoop, Chris and laurier.JPG Omar), what you want is something decent, tasty and affordable to purchase by the case. Turn to the non-vintage Domaine Laurier Brut which, despite its French name, is from California and one of the better products of Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Corp. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method, is a medium gold color and offers a consistent and satisfying up-rush of tiny bubbles. Aromas of wheatmeal, lime and almond blossom presage a wine that is spare, clean, lively, citrusy and close to elegant. Very Good and a bargain at about $12. That’s the suggested retail price, but you find this sparkler discounted as low as $9.
Image from
Looking for more character at a higher but still reasonable price? Try the delightful “metodo classico” non-vintage Rotari Rosé, a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay from Italy’s northeastern Trento region. The color is an entrancing pale copper-salmon; the bubbles insist on pin-point persistence. The wine is unexpectedly (for the price) rich, meaty and earthy, with a bouquet of spiced apple, melon, blood orange and almond skin. The effervescence is giddy; the acidity clean and crisp; flavors tend toward fresh bread, lime and limestone, with the stony aspect increasing on the finish. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $14.
O.K., well, let’s forget all the freaking fiscal austerity and pretend that, as the old song from the Depression goes (you know, the ttg006.jpgother Depression), we’re in the money, and that maybe tonight’s festivity is aimed at a small group or even just two. It would be fitting, then, to open a bottle of the Taittinger Brut Millésimé 2002, a cool, elegant Champagne — half and half pinot noir and chardonnay –that will leave you feeling optimistic and (fleetingly) wealthy. The color is pale gold with a shimmer of silver; the bubbles are classically tiny, like seething flecks of celestial ore. Aromas of warm bread, dried spice, lemon pie and meadow honey draw you in. The texture is exquisitely poised between crisp nervosity and creamy lushness, with flavors packing hints of baked apple, lemon curd, crystallized ginger and orange rind wrapped in toasty bread, all of this subdued to the resonance of liquid limestone. A Champagne of tremendous breeding and finesse. Excellent. About $90.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
Since New Year’s Eve is the biggest champagne and sparkling wine night of the year, let me append some tips on proper serving.

1. Champagne and sparkling wine should be served chilled, straight from the refrigerator.

2. They should be consumed in tall “flute” glasses, not the shallow “coupe” glasses said to have been modeled on one of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I wonder which one.

3. Never try to open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine with a cork-screw. Strip off the foil capsule and untwist the wire cage that surrounds the cork. With a dish towel or napkin over the bottle, grasp the cork in one hand and the bottom of the bottle in the other. Extract the cork by twisting the bottle, not the cork.

4. Now matter how plastered you are or how much hilarity you anticipate, NEVER push the cork out with your thumbs, hoping for a loud POP, a gush of foam and a cork careening about the room. The pressure inside a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine is enormous, and the cork will rush out at great speed and force, enough to damage an eye.

5. Champagne and sparkling wines are versatile enough to be served with all sorts of party foods and dinner courses, but the best beverage to go with caviar is chilled vodka.

Must the world be one big freaking conundrum?

Example. Many authorities say that cachaça (“ka-SHA-zha”), the national spirit of Brazil, should not be called rum, or a kind of rum, because it’s distilled from pure sugar cane juice and not from molasses. Many rums, however, are made from sugar cane leblon1.jpgjuice, and, besides, the bottle of Leblon Cachaça that I used to make caipirinhas (kai-pur-EEN-ya) this weekend says, very clearly, “Brazilian Rum.”

O.K., here’s another. The two books I consulted on making a caipirinha — New Classic Cocktails by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan (Macmillian, 1997) and Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (Viking, 1998), each excellent in its way — took different approaches to the drink, the first recommending granulated sugar and the second simple syrup, while each book offered a radically different method of making simple syrup. The Regans call for two cups of granulated sugar and two cups of water, and the water is not to boil. Harrington and Moorhead call for two cups of sugar and one cup of water that boils. Hmmm, must we do thermal violence to create simple syrup? I chose to follow Harrington and Moorhead’s proportion of sugar to water, but heeded the Regan’s injunction against boiling the water. I allowed the water to simmer and stirred the entire time, so the sugar dissolved and the mixture thickened and clarified. Simple syrup keeps in the fridge, in a tightly closed glass jar, forever.

No Brazilian would make a caipirinha with simple syrup, but granulated sugar in Brazil is more finely granulated than its counterpart in the U.S., akin to what we call superfine sugar, so the simple syrup came in handy. To test a theory, I made two caipirinhas, one with sugar and one with simple syrup. The glass with the cut limes and granulated sugar required pretty strenuous muddling to get the sugar to dissolve. In truth, the caipirinha made with simple syrup was more intense than the one made with sugar.

Thousands of brands of cachaça are available in Brazil, in styles ranging from raw, rustic and fiery to more elegant artisanal efforts. The stuff used to be hard to find in the U.S.A., but “drink-builders” around the country have come to value its versatility in the creation of signature cocktails and its relatively light fruitiness compared to rum, though don’t mistake cachaça for a wallflower; it’s powerful goods.

Leblon Cachaça is a fairly new brand in this country. The distiller is Gilles Merlet from Cognac, and indeed the distillate, after going through the copper alembic pot stills, ages six months in used Cognac barrels. The result is a cachaça that seems smooth and concentrated and slightly spicy. While elegance and seamlessness may be the target, this product still retains something wild and florid, grassy and earthy; it hasn’t forgotten its roots in the sugar cane fields of Patos de Minas.

The caipirinha itself presents a conundrum. The combination of the keen acidity of the limes and the sweetness of the sugar is a paradox of bracing effect, sending the taste buds into search-and-rescue overdrive before you say, “Whoa, that’s incredibly refreshing!”

Remember, this chronicle of 100 wines is not about the best wines I have tasted since 1983; it’s about the wines I learned the most from, the wines that contributed to my education, knowledge and experience. Theoretically, some of them could be bad wines.

So, in terms of this chronicle, we’re at the end of 1983, the year during which my first wife and I decided that, even though we lived in a dry county in Mississippi, not far south of Memphis, we would try two different wines every week. That’s when I started keeping a wine notebook and soaking labels off bottles to keep a record.

By this time, I had filled my first, small notebook and had moved on to a larger, three-ring binder that gave me more room to write and preserve labels. It wouldn’t be long before the label-keeping became an onerous task because I was tasting too many wines to soak or steam the labels off. And a gratifying thing happened. Friends knew that I was obsessed with learning about wine, and they began giving me interesting bottles as presents for birthday and Christmas, bottles that, when possible, I shared with them.

Let’s look, then, at Christmas Dinner 1983.

With the appetizer — sauteed mushrooms stuffed with chutney and pistachios — we drank the Freixenet Brut Nature 1975, an mtveeder.jpg attractive, crisp, dry fruity CAVA that cost all of $8.99. With the sherried pea soup, naturally we drank glasses of sherry, in this case the Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe, $8.29. With the roast goose, we had the first Bordeaux Classified Growth I had ever purchased, the Chateau Pichon-Longueville 1980, from Pauillac, a wine we enjoyed but didn’t love. Price? Get this. $12.95.

The wine that knocked me out on Christmas Day 1983, however, and the subject of this post, was the Mount Veeder Winery Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980, Mount Veeder-Napa County. Whoa, at 15.6 percent alcohol, this was “heady and powerful stuff,” as my notes say. We probably drank this with a chocolate dessert, but I neglected to write down what the dessert was. My notes continue: “Beautiful deep purple; tannic, fruity, slightly sweet nose; same taste but deep and complex, sweetness more like very ripe fruitiness, hints of chocolate and vegetal undertones. Should last years.” This was the first late-harvest zinfandel I had tasted, and it made a forceful impression. Twenty-five years later, I remember its assertive, dark flavors, its velvety, viscous texture and port-like character. The price was $9.99 for a half-bottle.

I think one change that occurred over this first year of devotion to wine is that our tastes were getting more sophisticated. On December 22, we went with friends to a restaurant in Memphis called the Bradford House, a sadly short-lived French restaurant that was one of of favorite places in the early 1980s. I took three wines: the Antinori Galestro 1981, imported by Julius Wile (pleasant but not distinctive, $7.99); the superb Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982 ($8.99); and the hearty and robust Saint Joseph 1975 from Alexandre Rochette, imported by Kobrand (an amazing $4.95).

That is, J Cuvée 20 Brut, a non-vintage sparkling wine from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. Cuvée 20 was designed to cuvee20.jpg celebrate J’s 20 years of making sparkling wine, though the winery also produces chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir wines. A blend of chardonnay grapes (49 percent), pinot noir (49 percent) and pinot meunier (2 percent), J Cuvée 20 Brut is made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

A glimmering pale gold color, this sparkler delivers classic aromas of fresh biscuits and lightly buttered toast, almond and almond blossom, roasted lemon and limestone. It’s full-bodied and creamy, yet taut with lively acidity; cinnamon toast and crystallized ginger, Key lime pie and orange zest add detail to the dimension of this wine’s depth, density and intensity, a satisfying model of the marriage of power and elegance. The finish is properly dry, austere and stony. Excellent. On the Internet prices range from $20 to $33, so let’s say about $25 to $28 is right.

Well, this is just as pretty as can be.

The Bailly Lapierre Brut Rosé 2006, Crémant de Bourgogne, is a blend of pinot noir grapes with gamay (only 20 percent bailly-lapierre.JPG gamay is allowed in the wine) that scintillates with charm and delight. The color is a lovely deep melon-magenta; about a million tiny bubbles teem in the glass, while scents of fresh bread and macerated cherries beguile the nose. The wine, made in the traditional champagne method, is dry, crisp and lively, with flavors of dried raspberries and strawberries and hints of orange zest, all permeated by a firm, vibrant limestone element. A terrific sparkling wine for a small party or dinner. Very Good+. About $18 to $22.

William Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.

Crémant de Bourgogne is an anomaly in several senses. First, it’s the only sparkling wine allowed to be produced in Burgundy, or at least allowed to carry the name Bourgogne on the label. Second, it’s made a considerable distance from Burgundy proper, its production centered around the town of Auxerre, which, your atlas will reveal, lies about equidistant between Dijon and Paris. In fact, Auxerre is west of Chablis, which is itself far enough northwest of Dijon that you have to wonder what sense it makes for Chablis to be nominally included as part of Burgundy anyway. France may have produced the great rational minds of Descartes, Montesquieu, Montaigne and Foucault, but the French wine laws might as well have been designed by Marcel Marceau.

We’re on our way toward New Year’s Day in the “12 Days of Christmas” countdown with sparkling wine and Champagne, and today,bugey.jpg Monday, I offer this sweetheart of a non-vintage sparkler, “La Cueille” Vin du Bugey-Cerdon (I love this old-fashioned label; let’s hope it’s never modernized) from the producer Patrick Bottex, and no, you don’t rub it on your sad, old wrinkled forehead. This bottle of bubbly conforms to our purpose in this “12 Days of Christmas” series to keep prices lower than usual and (or) to offer alternatives to Champagne by 1. being from a little-known appellation in France; 2. including a little-known grape in its blend; 3. by offering an affordable price, depending on what part of the country you occupy. bugeymap.jpg

Bugey lies in eastern France, not far from the point where Switzerland dips the western tip of Lake Leman (or Lake Geneva) into the French Alps, in the Ain département. Though scattered geographically, the Bugey region is small, totaling only about 1,250 acres of vineyards, mostly planted to white varieties. The wines here, mainly consumed in the region, are classified VDQS, that is, Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, a tiny category above Vin de Pays that exists as a sort of holding pattern for wines assumed to be elevated to Appellation Côntrolée status, and, in fact, in April 2008, Bugey filed papers for such a change.

The principal grapes in Bugey are the white chardonnay and aligoté, altesse, jacquere and molette, and the red poulsard, mondeuse, gamay and pinot noir.

So, on to today’s sparkling wine. Patrick Bottex’s completely delightful “La Cueille” Vin du Bugey-Cerdon, a blend of 80 percent gamay and 20 percent poulsard, is the pale, pale pink color of Bazooka Bubble Gum. It froths with tiny bubbles and offers aromas of, yes, bubble gum, raspberry, mulberry and stones. It’s slightly sweet, but not dominated by sweetness, and, in fact, after the initial entry, the wine goes dry, bolstered by walloping acidity and layers of limestone and shale, while flavors stay steady in the ripe (and slightly spicy) red fruit range. At about 8 percent alcohol, it won’t do much damage to your sad, old wrinkled synapses. Perfectly appropriate as an aperitif, for those who want a touch of winsome sweetness, or as a light sign-off to a winter dinner. Very Good+. A word about prices. In my neck o’ the woods, this wine sells for an unaccountable $30; nationally, look for $18 to $24.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.

… and I don’t know if it’s because today is Sunday or what, but I’m in the mood to offer, as today’s “12 Days of Christmas” countdown in sparkling wine and Champagne, an example of the real stuff, the A.R Lenoble Brut Nature.

The house of A.R. Lenoble goes back to 1915, when Armand-Raphael Graser, a native of Alsace, fled the region, then in German lenoble_brut_nature_1.jpg hands, and settled with his family in Champagne. By 1920, he was producing and selling Champagne under the A.R. Lenoble name. The house is still in family hands, operated now by the founder’s great-granddaughter and great-grandson.

A classic blend of 40 percent chardonnay, 30 percent pinot noir and 30 percent pinot meunier, the A.R. Lenoble Brut Nature is a matter of infinite tinsels bound into a vibrant tensile whole, like a Chopin Nocturne whose traceries barely conceal its powerful structure and inevitable harmonic relationships. The color is palest gold; the seething, twisting bubbles race like mad to the surface. This bone-dry Champagne is clean, light, fresh and delicate, a connoisseur’s Champagne. First come aromas of pears, biscuits, wet stones and a touch of citrus, and then a few moments in the glass bring notes of spiced apple, melon and limestone. It’s remarkably crisp and refreshing, with brisk acidity that sets the palate tingling, yet delivering a texture that’s smooth and slightly creamy. The finish leans on chalk and limestone for a touch of elegant austerity. I opened this bottle while cooking Christmas Eve dinner, and, oops, it was gone. Excellent. About $35 to $40.

Opici Import Co., Glen Rock, N.J.

Robert Weil founded the estate that bears his name in 1875. A teacher of German at the Sorbonne, he fled Paris at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and settled in the Rheingau. The estate is still operated by his descendants, though under a partnership with Suntory.

Both of the Rheingau riesling wines I mention today are from the ancient 27-acre Gräfenberg vineyard in the commune of Kiedrich. Gräfenberg has a history of grape-growing going back to the late 12th century; yes, winemakers have been exploiting this superb setting for more than a millennium.
After one of those days at work, LL and I decided that it was time for take-out wonton soup, though actually what we do is graefenberg_etikett1.jpg take an order of wonton soup and an order of war wonton soup, which has a variety of meats and vegetables, and pour them together. Yum. When I told the kid behind the counter that this is what we did with the soups, his eyes widened. “Wow,” he said conspiratorially, “does that make it better?” I said, “No, just different. We like it.”

Anyway, I opened the Robert Weil Kiedrich Gräfenberg “Erstes Gewächs” Riesling 2005. “Erstes Gewächs” means “first growth,” a limited designation for German wines. My first note is “Beautiful.” It’s like drinking liquid limestone filtered through little white flowers and an essence of macerated and spiced peaches and pears. The wine is so classic, so impeccably balanced and integrated, so pure and intense in its crisp dryness that it feels perfect. Notes of lychee and mango come up, hints of tarragon and hay, yet these elements are subsumed by the immense influence of transparent minerality and frank earthiness. Nothing, though, disturbs the sense of crystalline harmony and delicacy. Terrific with the soup. Drink now through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Excellent. About $60.

Imported by Rudi Wiest Selections for Cellar International Inc., San Marcos, Ca.

Then last night we went to the house of some friends to eat a simple dinner: baked ham, green bean casserole (I think cream of mushroom soup is making a comeback) and a gratin of grated sweet potatoes with a fairly spicy powdered chipotle and spice mixture that LL made.

Thinking in particular about the baked ham, I took the Robert Weil Kiedrich Gräfenberg Spätlese Riesling 2004. Remember that the graefenberg_etikett2.jpgterm spätlese doesn’t mean how sweet the wine is (except by implication) but how ripe the grapes were at harvest or how late the harvest was; the range of sweetness in spatlese wines can be wide. Anyway, this example was impeccable, from its shimmering pale gold color to its perfect poise and balance. Moderately sweet on the entry, the peach and pear flavors are quite ripe, but not roasted or honeyed; instead, the fruit trafficks in lovely purity and juicy deliciousness; if peaches and pears had tasted this burstingly sweet and spicy in Eden, Adam and Eve would never have left. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of lychee, smoke and shale, and the fruit takes on a slight sheen of honey, though moderately lush, not heavy or obvious. The primary effect is of tissues of delicacies wreathed into a plangent whole. This was wonderful with the ham, and it also handled the spicy sweet potatoes. As far as the green bean casserole is concerned, you’re on your own. Drink now through 2013 or ’15, well-stored. Excellent. About $65.

Imported by Rudi Wiest Selections for Cellar International Inc., San Marcos, Ca.

Next Page »