Friday, April 17, 2015

Wine With Jake: Vinirari Balteo 2010, Val d'Aosta, Italy at Nostrana

I really love convergences. Even more so when there is wine involved.

Old friend Jake Parrott is in town.  Jake is a guy who works hard and plays hard, the kind of guy that energizes you by being in the vicinity.  After a rather long day for him we managed to rendezvous at Nostrana, reminisce, laugh a lot, and nosh.

With a Funghi Verde pizza shared, tagliata for him and pasta for me, we agreed a lighter wine was in order.  Jake quite liked the Nostrana list with some perceptive Italian selections from all around the 20 regions, a few choice nuggets from neighboring Slovenia, and some local stuff from the Willamette.

It’s always difficult to quickly pick a wine from the Nostrana list. There’s so much there, and from so many directions, if you choose one you almost always regret not selecting another.

But Jake picked the Vinirari Balteo Val d’Aosta, 2010.  And holy schnikies (a technical expletive popular with wine professionals) was he right!

I’ll be honest here: I thought the Balteo was Petite Rouge.  They did have a Petite Rouge on the list, by the way, but it wasn’t the Balteo.  Although, in a way, the Balteo was at least partly Petite Rouge.  Allow me to use the Louis/Dressner website info to…um…clarify things:

85% fumin and 15% cornalin. Little known fact, cornalin in Aosta is not the same as cornalin in the Valais of Switzerland. It's what would be called humagne rouge in Switzerland, a descendent of Swiss cornalin. However, Swiss cornalin is descended from petit rouge and vien de nus from Aosta.

Now THAT, my friends is inherent winegeekery of the highest order! Bravo!! I particularly like the “little known fact” touch.  Dude, Cornalin, Petite Rouge, the Swiss Valais (see what I did there?), humagne rouge and vien du nus---hell, for that matter, even Aosta as a region---are all and sundry little known facts to all but the very, very few.

And for all of you who don’t know what the terms mean, the Aosta, or Val d’Aosta (your ear may hear it as “Valdosta”) refers to a tiny, tiny, tiny valley that is the entirety of the DOC.  I believe it is the smallest designated region in Italy, although I could be wrong, because who the heck ever knows in Italy. 

The Aosta has its own little idiosyncrasies that make it distinctive.  As a remainder of the once large and powerful House of Savoy, the valley was strategically situated near France and south of Switzerland and including the Piedmont. Eventually, of course, the valley was incorporated into the newly born state of unified Italy---with the first King of all Italy being the reigning King of the House of Savoy!  Hence, the valley is dual in its languages, and you’ll see road signs in both French and Italian.

Whether French or Italian accented, the wines of the Aosta, in their sequestered little valley, have always remained largely local and authochthonous; many appear nowhere else than in this particular area of the Alps.  Hence the references to Fumin and Petite Rouge and others.

But let’s speak to this particular wine, rather than to its varietal makeup. It is light-bodied, smooth, and elegant, without any forceful braggadocio of over-ripe fruit or fresh oak.  It is a berry-focused fruit---for me, raspberry---but much, much more. Its lightness and delicacy---well, apparent delicacy---belies its complexity. Tasty and quaffable, sure.  But the Balteo has some depths to explore.  First the raspberry, in a clean, bright, fresh fruit way. Then there’s the unexpected  but pleasant bite of white pepper that enlivens the fruit and draws you further into the wine. Texturally, it begins silky-soft, then manages to fill out a bit in the middle before letting its ghost of aroma and flavor linger around for a while.

Jake ordered the Vinirari Balteo because he wanted a wine that would match with the food on the table…and because he can’t resist the more obscure and exotic wines when he (rarely) sees them on a list. The wine was delightful with the multi-mushroom and arugula pizza on a charred crust, the slightly bloody tagliata and more arugula, and my paglia e fieno pasta with smoked white trout and English peas.

(Side note here: I hesitated on the paglia e fieno because I didn’t want the usual culinary aberration of a badly made paglia e fieno, the kind where they drown the damn thing in cream and butter so much you’re left with oily soup at the end. Blah.  But Nostrana, as always, did it right: delicate, fresh egg pasta, al dente English peas, delicious house-smoked trout, and a respectable restraint with the cream pitcher so it was sauce, not gravy.)

Pizza gone. Steak and pasta gone. Wine remained. Our dessert was the rest of the wine with one small wedge of absolutely delicious cheese, a Briar Ridge Waterloo Sunset soft cow cheese from Dundee, OR, selected by the wine steward.

If you haven’t tried a Val d’Aosta wine as yet, hie thee to Nostrana; they have several well-chosen ones on the list. (Suggestion: try a white Petite Arvine from Aosta. Word.) You’ll be experiencing something you’ve literally never had before, with varieties you probably never knew about before, in the best possible culinary environment for the wines.

Now, that's a convergence!

Monday, April 13, 2015

50 year old Laubade Armagnac in a cocktail? Cue the outrage!

Would you put a 50 year old single estate Armagnac in a cocktail?

Many people would call you crazy, or at the very least a perpetrator of high crimes and misdemeanors, for desecrating such a venerable brandy by mixing it in a ***shudder*** cocktail. Your parentage would be questioned; teeth would be gnashed; veins would throb; and heads would explode.

But when Kevin Tuan, reputed to be one of the top bartenders in Hanoi, created two delicious cocktails based on Chateau de Laubade 1965 Single Estate Armagnac, the owners of Chateau de Laubade were delighted, and couldn’t wait to post it on their Facebook feed.

Kevin Tuan crafts his cocktail creations at the Bar Pharaoh in the Lotte Hoteld’Hanoi.  When he discovered the remarkable single estate/single vineyard/vintage dated Armagnacs of Chateau de Laubade, he immediately created two new cocktails. 

The Laubade de Pharaoh was a classic take on a brandy sour, laced with orange and lemon juice and emboldened with a dash of Angostura bitters.  Wild Mint in 1965 was a whimsical variation on the minty mojito, or you might call it “thyme on time” in reference to Kevin’s inspired use of selfsame herb, whether pun intended or not.

Bar Pharaoh,, Lotte Hotel Hanoi

These two cocktails were so intriguing, with the heretical idea of using such a superlative base as the vintage dated Armagnac, I had to try them both---or at least, my home-styled variation of both, since I could not hop a plane to Hanoi.

I also, alack and alas, did not possess any 1965 Armagnac from Chateau de Laubade.  Fresh out, darn it! So I “made do” with a Chateau de Laubade XO. That was okay, I figured, because I would get the essential element of a well-aged Laubade while still causing sweats and heart palpitations among the purists. Desecration of sacred objects is a terrible thing, innit? So I laboriously climbed up my trophy wall, took the XO Armagnac off its pedestal, dusted it off, polished it up a bit so it would reflect the lights of the crystal chandelier (details are important) and proceeded to mix and mingle my cocktails. (Mind you, I'm somewhat cheap. If you're not miserly you can easily find the Chateau de Laubade around the country---see,---ranging from $300 to $349 a bottle.  Which, come to think of it, is actually a startling price for a 50 year old single-vintage Armagnac.)

The results?  Pretty damned tasty.

The Laubade de Pharaoh worked beautifully with the XO.  This was a sour with substance!  That characteristic earthy tang of Armagnac was there, with the lacy fringes of fruit and flower peeking through. The nose was particularly charming---bright and citrusy, of course; nicely balanced between the sweet orange and the tart lemon; with the responsive dried orange peel and spice of the Armagnac---and the flavor was compelling enough that the cocktail disappeared in amazingly short order.  This could easily be a standard of the house.

The Wild Mint in 1965 was an even more whimsical twist on a now-familiar modern classic, the mojito. But here, the addition of Chateau de Laubade XO made a seismic difference. A basic, simple quaffing Collins/Highball drink, primarily designed so one could hydrate while dancing wildly to Cubano music in the sweltering streets while getting enough alcohol to sustain the frenzy but not enough to put you face down on the cobblestones, had amazingly transformed itself into a fresh, lively, but sleek and sophisticated tall drink. The contrast of bright, fresh, green mint (I used spearmint) on top, with the entirely different bass tones of the thyme underneath, were perfectly balanced by the robust body and earthy appeal of the Armagnac, making for a surprisingly complex and satisfying drink.I altered my version to eliminate the mojito/mint syrup, preferring natural aromas of
 the crushed spearmint instead

Not wishing to deprive you of the experience, courtesy of Chateau de Laubade here are the two recipes from Kevin.  Make them up today…or better yet, stop off at the Bar Pharaoh in Hanoi and ask Kevin to whip them right up for you.

Laubade de Pharaoh :- 1965 Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac: 60 mL- Orange : 20 mL- Fresh Lemon Juice : 10 mL- Syrup Sugar Cane : 10 mL- Angostura bitters : 3 dash 

Wild Mint in 1965 :- 1965 Chateau de Laubade : 80 mL- Mint Syrup (Dolin): 10 mL- Mojito Syrup: 10mL- Fresh Lime Juice: 10 mL- Thyme : 2 sprigs- Mint: 2 sprigs

And, sorry, but if you make these at home, you’ll have to supply your own Chateau de Laubade Armagnac.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Time In A Bottle: A Revery on 1942 Chateau de Laubade Armagnac

This past summer I ventured to Armagnac to explore the region and brandy for which Gascony was so famous. My intent was to focus on identifying the three necessary elements that define wine, and by extension, wine-based spirits: terroir, varietal composition and maker.

But at the end of my trip I faced a new question I needed to answer.

I visited several distilleries and took every occasion during my stay to sample a range of Armagnacs, from the young, obviously commercial and as obviously adulterated to the sublime expressions of long maturation from dedicated single estate producers.

At my final distillery visit I had the great fortune of having my mind and palate prepared by Francois Lasportes, Maitre de Chai at Chateau de Laubade, through tasting the separate varieties as clear eaux-de-vie, then various aged iterations of the different varieties, and finally well-aged versions of the blends and vintage releases. In all I tasted 2013, 2005, 2001, 1999, 1995, 1994, 1983, Laubade XO and Laubade l’Intemporel XO, with an average age of 50 years.

Le Paradis
At this point it was fairly easy to recognize terroir, to distinguish the differences between Cognac and Armagnac as well as the differences among Armagnacs. I was becoming adept at identifying the contribution of the different varieties---of Ugni Blanc for its lean acidic structure; Baco and it’s rich, deep earthiness; the spicy tang of herbs in Colombard; and the soft floral fruitiness of Folle Blanche. These had become apparent from Francois’s careful tutelage. And Château de Laubade’s style was readily evident.

Then, as my final Armagnac of the visit, I was offered the opportunity to taste the Chateau de Laubade 1942.  And the question suddenly arose:  How do you taste time?

Or maybe we should ask that a different way:  Can you taste time?

2013 Eaux-de-vie by variety
Certainly you can taste maturation, that time the spirit rested in an oak barrel, daily and incrementally leaching out the flavors of the wood, slowly, slowly turning with the change of the days and the seasons and the years, digesting, metabolizing, becoming ever more dense and concentrated, as the spirit transpires through the barrel staves in molecular amounts and the oxygen creeps in to fill the space and interact with the spirit as it concentrates.

Maturation is easy to discern. When a spirit goes into the barrel crystal clear, its deceptive fruitiness masking a fiery core of alcohol, to emerge years later a lovely golden brown in color, caramel tawny, and yielding up abundances of spice and leather and tobacco and chocolate that were not there before, it is obvious that something remarkable has happened, something natural yet nonetheless cloaked in the mysteries.

It’s what we used to call magic. And in the case of spirits, we still do. We know very well how it works, and with our technology and experience we can influence it, but we can’t control it. So It’s magic.

Same single-variety/single estate
over 15 years old
But that’s maturation. And maturation is the effects of time (and other things). How do you taste time?

If terroir exists; if there is indeed a direct connection, unbroken, from the soil and the water and the air and into the fruit, the wine, and the spirit, should it not be maintained through the years, even if attenuated?  In a great spirit, a profound spirit, handled with proper attention, knowledge and experience, one should be able to identify and appreciate the three necessary elements: the terroir, the fruit composition, and the hand of the maker. I could discern all of those to some degree, but I had elevated the 1942 to more than simply “brandy”; I had placed it on a high pedestal with the burden of representing, in my mind, a specific year in an epochal time. And it is difficult to analyze reverence.

The final tasting
1942 was a significant year, a year of turmoil and death and destruction, of upheaval on a massive scale, a truly global scale.  America had abruptly entered the war full force a few months prior with the shock of Pearl Harbor, but Europe and China/Japan had been embroiled in vicious wars for some years. The conflagration had finally engulfed the world in 1942.

In Europe, Austria and Czechoslovakia fell quickly and without war. Poland fell quickly and violently. Then Germany launched the war into France. France, stunned and depressed, still weary from the last war, with little aid available from Britain, succumbed with anguish, yielding up sovereignty and territory, crouching feebly back into the bitter survival of “Vichy France.” The Scandinavian countries succumbed. And Hitler began to launch Operation Barbarossa into Russia.

But Gascony was largely untouched by the violence of war.  The people were affected, yes, but the land and the crops remained as they were, even if the harvest was hampered by lack of workers. The grapes came in; the wine was made; and the distillation happened as it always did, a reminder that some things persist as they always have despite what humans do to each other.

So here was the momentous year, trapped in a bottle.  The people of the time were long gone, but this lived on, that last liquid remnant of a time that meant so much but was no more. 1942.

Can you taste time?  No. Not I. Not in that sense. I could taste the mellow, soft, silky texture on my tongue and savor the remaining fruit, still present but wrapped with delicious, subtle hints of old hand-rubbed leather and cinnamon spice and dark, scuffed up forest floor on a cool day, meaty preserved plum and a whiff of tobacco smoke lingering in the air. The Armagnac was dazzling in a quiet and wonderful way.

I could taste age, but not time. 1942---the Armagnac--- was a gentle creature, warming, like the banked embers of a fire, glowing with soft comfort and beguiling the palate and slowing down the soul to revery.  1942---the year---was turmoil and rupture, a tearing apart of the civilized fabric of life. The two co-existed, but had little overlap, and that only in fading memory of a time familiar to me but before I was conceived.

Can you taste time? Not really, no.  You can taste the effects of time, but when the sensory impressions travel through the olfactory bulb and into the brain, they cease being taste and become thought, conjecture, imagination and fancy. What you taste stimulates the brain in all its synaptic wonder of metaphor, analogy, and memory, so that what you are tasting is associated with a particular time, yet not really connected to it. But it remains associative; not physical but metaphysical.

I could not taste time. But even so, I had been privileged to taste a superb, gentle, refined Armagnac, the product of a single vineyard estate from a single year, and that would stay with me forever. So I suppose  you could call it timeless.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Due Diligence: Vasse Felix Chardonnay Estate, Margaret River, 2012

I don’t consume nearly as much Australian wine as I used to. Mostly, that’s okay, because I long ago left behind the over-the-top exuberance and hot-climate jam fruit many of them embody and I no longer drink the volumatic plonk that tastes of not much in particular regardless of what it says on the label. But I miss the good ones.  The Taylor/Wakefield from Clare Valley, for instance That’s my kind of wine. *snif* Wish it were still around in the U.S.

Still and all, have to pay homage where homage is due, and I recently found an Aussie---and a Chardonnay, at that---which was really impressive. 

Thing is, it had all the elements of chardonnay that I almost always do not care for.  Obvious sweet vanilla oak? Check.  Noticeable malolactic diacetyl “I can’t believe it’s not butter”?  Check.  Big body and slickery/creamy mouthfeel?  Oh yeah, check.

So why did I like it so much?  First, because it was a remarkably balanced and harmonious wine, with all the parts neatly joined and fitted together so it was seamless. Second, because it reminded me---just a bit---of what could be its big brother, Leeuwin Artist Series Chardonnay.

I’m not sure whether I can chalk the family resemblance up to both being Margaret River, that mild and temperate clime in far western Australia, or simply a stylistic similarity working on a slightly less concentrated frame than the Leeuwin.  You know what; it’s probably both.

The difference is in the price. Where Leeuwin Artist Series goes for a princely sum, the Vasse Felix Estate Chardonnay is surprisingly modest in price. For something in the range of $15—20 a bottle, this is exceptionally good wine.  (Please note there are other special designate chardonnays from Vasse Felix, such as the Heytesbury and Adams Road Vineyard; these are more expensive, probably more akin to the Leeuwin Artist Series, and may not be as readily available.)

Vasse Felix Estate Chardonnay, Margaret River, 2012 is tightly structured but delicate with a chardonnay signature of mixed citrus and tart apple. Sweet vanilla and buttercream are there---but they never drown out the essential core of the wine. All the elements are distinct, but none are overdone; everything is held in perfect balance, with nothing ‘sticking out’.  The Vasse Felix is simply a pleasure to drink, and it remains bright and lively and vibrant until the last sip. Declaratively new world in style, yes; but undeniably a fine crafted wine.

And please notice that this lovely and balanced bottle was preserved in all its fresh glory by a screwcap.  Thank you, Vasse Felix.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2015: The Main Event

BettyLu called us to table.

We obediently filed into the dining room, peering at the names on the cards, looking for our seats, pleasantly relaxed by the lovely aperitif wines Lou had provided and eager for the meal to begin.

From his marvelous cellar….wait…what?...what? Ah ha, Lou has decided to depart from whatever we thought the traditions might be for cassoulet by offering up a Vermentinu  That’s right, a Vermentinu. Or Vermentino. Or Rolle, as in let the good times. It is the Antoine Arena Haut de Carco Patrimonio White, 2012, from the southerly part of Corsica.  That makes it French (unless you ask a Corsican), therefore not that great a departure perhaps.

Antoine Arena, now working with his two sons, produces fine Niellucciu reds and Vermentinu whites from several small plots of vineyards in the Patrimonio AOC.  The Haut de Carco is the newest, an escarpment of almost solid limestone looming over the Carco vineyard.  No vines had previously grown here, and the neighbors were intrigued and amused to watch the Arenas dig laboriously and dynamite extensively to prepare the ground. They were skeptical. To the surprise of everyone except the Arenas, the vines held, rooted in the cracks and crevices of the limestone.

Haut de Carco Blanc is enticing in the nose, with white flowers, sweet, fresh green hay, and luscious pear.  On the palate it’s firm and structured, lavish with its limestone mineral base and balanced with lively citrus tartness, with a piercing minerality and a tangy almost-bitterness asserting itself at the very end.

Scallop with Tangerine Sauce
The wine was quite delicious, and even more so as a fitting companion with the first course. BettyLu had prepared a delicious appetizer:  one perfect pan-sautéed scallop, seared outside and slightly caramelized but soft and sweet within, and accompanied by a resonant sauce of tangerine. Exquisite, and perfectly suiting the evening, preparing us for the main plate.

Prior to the cassoulet’s arrival, Lou introduced the accompanying red wine, another (slight) departure from the traditional Rhone wines usually served. I say slight because some years ago guest Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John had suggested that the wines of the Piedmont would do well matched with cassoulet.  Steve was right; the Piemontese nebbioli were remarkably good. So here we were again, this time with Luigi Scavino’s Azelia Barolo “Bricco Fiasco” 1996.

This wine…  This wine was so complex and sophisticated, so utterly satisfying and challenging, that I’ll give over my poor powers of description and let the good folks at K & L in San Francisco give their report, citing Tanzer and Parker, because I can’t better it.

93(+?) points Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, Nov/Dec '00: "Very good deep red. Complex aromas of plum, black cherry, menthol, leather, game and smoked nuts. Sweet, rich and chewy; conveys an almost saline impression of extract. Lush and sweet but with powerful underlying spine. Finishes with substantial but harmonious tannins and superb persistence. Two years ago, this wine appeared to be more accessible than the San Rocco; today it the other way around." 91-93 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate: "The 1996 Barolo Bricco Fiasco explodes with tobacco, balsam wood, cedar, tar, and the tell-tale cherry fruit. In the mouth, toasty oak makes an appearance. Full-bodied, tannic, deep, and powerful, with a huge impact and density, this modern-styled wine has the body and force of a more traditionally made Barolo. Anticipated maturity: 2004-2020." (08/99)

All I can add is that Tanzer’s description is spot on.

With such magnificent wine, a kind of wine that could easily mesmerize you into cradling and sipping all night attempting to penetrate its mysteries and plumb its depths, the accompanying food had to step up.  It did.

We all marveled at how BettyLu’s cassoulet gets better and better each year.  This year it was a feast for Gargantua and Pantagruel, positively packed with duck confit and plump sausages. The beans retained their integrity, neither hard nor mushy and the rich spicing and carnivorous flavors met and married the Azelia Barolo.

Cassoulet and Barolo
BettyLu lavishes a great deal of time and meticulous attention to all the details of her cassoulet dinners; Lou brilliantly supports her labors by enhancing the meal with perfect wine selections.  Add a lively, intelligent, and talkative crowd around the table and you have a dining event in the old style.

Now stuffed but obeying the propinquities of fine dining, we sipped on a port from Lou’s cellar, an amusing little Taylor Fladgate Vintage Oporto 1985. 

I have been a fan of the Taylor Fladgate style for many years; it is a bit more restrained, not quite as opulent as others, with great intensity rather than body. This one was in keeping with the house: rich but not over the top, solid berry fruits, inky purple-red color, and what seems to me to be a quintessentially English style.

(A moment of reminiscence here: some years ago when I was a retailer I had an elderly English couple come into the store, all tweedy and proper.We had a sale going, and the old gentleman wished to make a purchase. "Ten cases of the Taylor Fladgate 1966," he said. I hesitated a bit, not wishing to intrude on a customer's personal business, then remarked that was the largest single sale of port I'd ever made and I wondered if it were for entertaining or gifts?. He said, "No, not at all. We are getting on in years, and who knows what will happen. I am insuring that we have an adequate supply of our favorite Oporto to drink, so I am stocking the larder now."  I began drinking the Taylor Fladgate shortly afterwards, and have loved it every since.)

Dessert was a sweet-tooth extravaganza, a brobdingnagian slice of glorious excess in cake-pie form. We, all of us, marveled at it, and we, all of us, thought we’d never be able to finish the slice.  We, all of us, were wrong; we had underestimated how good it would be. For once a visual dessert also delivered in the eating of.  More kudos to BL.

Finally, the late hour, the over-indulgence in superb food and extensive consumption of remarkable wine began to take their toll, so we bid our farewells. Wanting for nothing but sleep, we each found our beds for the evening.

From all of us who have had the pleasure of cassoulet with Lou and BettyLu as hosts, here’s to them for putting on a memorable dinner.  We appreciate it deeply.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Cassoulet at Kesslers 2015: The Quickening

It’s hustle and bustle time.  All the people are arriving, with profuse hugging, air kissing and real kissing, punctuated by exclamations of “Has it been another year already?”
Lou immediately assumes his sommelier duties and steps behind the bar to offer his selected wines for the aperitif hour. He has already opened them and tested for the dreaded monsters, the Scylla of cork taint and the Charybdis of premature oxidation.  All wines were fine and free of flaw or fault.

Királvudyar Tokaji Furmint Sec 2013
One of the immediate surprises of the evening is a wine seldom seen or tasted, a Királvudyar Tokaji Furmint Sec.  Furmint is the base grape for Tokaji Aszu, the delectable honeyed dessert wine from Hungary.  But Furmint can be made dry as well, although little of that style makes it to the U.S.

Which is a shame.  It’s silky smooth, quietly elegant and plump with toasted nuts, orange zest and some stone fruit, perhaps apricot or yellow plum. Not a blockbuster but a quietly pleasing and easily sippable dry white, and a lovely bit of slightly-off-the path surprise by Lou.

Franz Hirtzberger Grūner Veltliner, Smaragd, Wachau 2005
It’s a thing of wonder when you open a great bottle of Grūner at that moment when it is just beginning to go through the transformation from adolescence to adulthood and makes that leap to maturity when the texture begins to soften from its green starkness and an almost-asparagus begins to assert itself, and the texture turns from lean and green and totally acidic to a softer, milder, significantly more mellow  and entirely different expression.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to believe in magic. 

Depending on your gender orientation, this quite lovely Grūner has been wine mitzvahed,  has celebrated its Quinceanera, or has stepped out of the closet.  This is gorgeous wine I could drink all evening long. It is the essence of green.

Ah, but an old and trusted friend is calling, so I force myself to move on to the Albariño do Ferreira Cepas Vellas from the Rias Baixas.  Every time I sip this wine I visualize that magnificent picture of the owner standing beneath the old vines, so thick and massive, having progressed from pergola trellised vines to the status of gnarly, twisted and luxuriantly leaved trees.  Such fruit. Such focus and intensity. Such minerality, with  lean acidic austerity and fat richness of fruit, side by side. For me---and I know it is one of those totally subjective decisions  and can be endlessly debated, but that’s the way it goes----the Cepas Vellas do Ferreiro is the benchmark of everything I admire about Albariño.

Lou is a smart wine guy, so at the Cassoulet lineup he always includes an impressive Sauvignon Blanc.  This time it is the Gerard Boulay Sancerre 2010.  The mingling crowd love it, as did I, but it was a bit of a different song the Boulay was singing, Sancerre with a different style.  Not brash and loudly green in the New Zealand style. Not really in the expected parameters of most Sancerre and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs either.  Less of the audacious herbaceousness; much, much less of the sweaty gym sock funk that is one of the great pleasures of Sancerre; and more of a big, lush, rounded and mouthfilling flavor.  It’s what they call Rubenesque, or if it strikes closer to home, it’s Pinetop Perkins singing “Big Fat Momma, with meat shaking on her bones.”

And there it stands. The last wine. And quite frankly, one I've purposely been saving for last, because it is Chardonnay. Chardonnay is worrisome for me, simply because there is so much poorly made wine under the umbrella of this grape, which is unfortunate, because it can be wonderful, even transcendent, but so often isn’t, so often either simple green apple or criminally overloaded to the other side with over-manipulation and obliterating oak vanilla spice and butter.

But Lou can be tricky. He’s a wily old coyote and not above playing wine games with the people he invites, and he loves to surprise the sophisticated wine geeks and jaded professionals. And here he has done it again, and smiles silently when the folks start splashing and sampling.  This particular evocation of chardonnay is from the Friuli, that north-easterly-most corner of Italy that is fairly equally divided among the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Slovenes next door, and the Italians.

Mind you, some great wines come from here, most from indigenous grapes, but there is a fair amount of the “international varieties” scattered around as well.  I’ll step up in front and say that I dearly love the Friuli; it’s one of the few places I would willingly retire to and live out my years, and wine is a hefty portion of that love.

That being said, as much as I love the region, and the wine, and am even impressed normally by this winery, I have to say that this is one weird little Chardonnay.  Blind me on this one and I am apt to say, in desperation, a Viognier or Roussanne…maybe (but with no conviction in my voice); or a really, really shy Gewurztraminer from a place I don’t know.  Or an obscure authochthonous variety from the depths of the Carpathian Mountains.  Or I would simply say, “Okay, I’m stumped.”

The Vie de Romans Chardonnay, Friuli 2011 doesn’t taste like a primary chardonnay. Maybe a chardonnay with a float of something else, something that is slightly floral, more quince than apple, and has a spicy tang to it.  It is rather pleasant, actually, and not at all difficult to drink: it just doesn’t make me think “Chardonnay.”  I don’t know whether that’s good or bad; the wine simply puzzles me.

The wines make for lively discussion in this select crowd, ranging as they do from classic and sublime to fringe cult weird (the wines, I mean; although the crowd might resemble that description too), and BettyLu’s appetizers being passed around occasion even more air explanation points. Lou has clearly achieved his objective of getting the crowd properly lubricated to appreciate the feast that is yet to come. 

With perfect timing (you’d think they have done this before), BL takes center stage, calls us all to the dinner table, and our meal begins in earnest.

Coming Soon: Cassoulet at Kesslers-The Main Event

Monday, March 2, 2015

From Ajaccio to Etna: Sciacciarellu to Nerello

When you’re a guest of the Kesslers, you’re assured of good hospitality, food, and wine, and our most recent visit was no exception. Rather, it was exceptional, even by their standards.

“Just pizza,” said BettyLu. But some great pizza, and matched with two great bottles of wine.

Our appetites were whetted by the 2013 Cuvée Faustine Rosé from Domaine Comte Abbatucci, a delightful, crisp, cranberry-lively mouthful of tartness and flavor base on the Sciacciarellu grape variety of Corsica, from the area of Ajaccio in the southern part of the island.

The Faustine (named after Abbatucci’s daughter, who one hopes is as lovely as her wine) was pure serendipity because just the previous day we had descended on the Kermit Lynch shop in Berkeley, to be immediately informed that this was the ‘shoulder season’ for great dry rosés and that only one or two were left in stock. Kermit had sold almost every bottle of their rosé offerings and were waiting anxiously for the new allotments to arrive.

So, with hopes dashed (no Domaine Maestracci E Prove!) and no good substitutions available, we resigned ourselves to other wines.  Then, of course, Lou serves up the delicious Faustine.

We were both stunned, however, with the next wine, a magical red from the slopes of Mt. Etna, 2007 Passopisciaro (the fisherman’s path) by Andrea Franchetti. The wine was absolutely captivating, with a bright bouquet of fragrant rose petals, raspberries, and strawberries. With such enticing aromas, the entry at first seemed like a middleweight, then rapidly expanded in the middle-palate to a full, robust and richly textured, chewy, almost meaty, savory delight.

The Passopisciaro was hugely enjoyable, and quite unlike anything I had experienced before. With its initial charming allure shifting to the umami explosion of flavor in the mouth, it was sort of like an aged Barolo---but not quite.  No, I thought, it’s more like a regal Cote de Nuits Burgundy…but not quite.

Afterwards, while trying to comprehend this fascinating and utterly drinkable Sicilian red, casting about for analogies and metaphors, and looking for descriptive parallels, I came across Antonio Galloni’s near-ecstatic review. With a score of 94 points, he described the 2010 Passopisciaro as
“…deceptively mid-weight, but behind the light color and seeming fleeting structure lies a deeply expressive core of perfumed red berries, crushed rocks, flowers and mint. A burst of deep salinity frames the bracing finish. Quite simply, this is a stunning wine. Think of the Passopisciaro as a cross of Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin and Gattinara….”  [highlighting mine]

Okay, somehow he missed the rose petals, and I still think Barolo, but Gattinara is not bad at all. Otherwise he totally nailed it. And, hey, maybe the rose petals came out more in the 2007 than the 2010. I’m prepared to be generous.

The grape:  Nerello Mascalese.

I’ve had, and enjoyed, Nerello Mascalese before. The wines were good, but not as utterly compelling as the Passopisciaro. Now I am convinced that Nerello Mascalese is capable of greatness.

The Passopisciaro is assembled from a patchwork of small vineyard plots, many of them composed of 80—100 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Most plots are not large enough to bottle separately, so they are gathered and blended by Franchetti.  Priced at a mere $35, this is an outstanding value and well worth buying by the case lot for long term unabated enjoyment.

Cuvée Faustine Rosé from Corsican Sciaccarellu and Passopisciaro Nerello Mascalese from the high slopes of Mt. Etna in Sicily

…ah, well, just another day with the Kesslers.