Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Orleans; 3 Days; 5 Provençal Rosés

"Rosé by cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark 
I had a pleasant daydream once while lolling under a veranda overlooking the beach at St. Tropez, not coincidentally sipping a delightful rosé from Coteaux d’Aix en Provence which made my toes curl with pleasure, while hiding behind my sunglasses so I could ogle the lean but buxom topless blonde woman tanning herself nearby. My ogling became outré when the two towheaded boys came running up to talk to MaMa, so I returned to focusing on the daydream of rosé.

My daydream was simple: I wished that one day I could go into any decent restaurant in the U.S. and find at least one, preferably more than one, Provence rosé on the list. Or hell, I’d settle for any of the pink/orange wines from the South of France. Nimes, Tavel, Listrac, Rhone, Maures, whatever. But mostly the dream involved Provence.

That dream is a lot closer to coming true than ever before---and honestly, I doubted it would ever get this near fruition.  First this country would have to get rid of its silly dalliance with White Zinfandel. Then it would have to realize that real rosé is different from plonk jug rosé, which means that essentially you would have to access the wines of France, Spain and Italy. And now, at last and thankfully, from certain producers in the U.S.

Sadly, for a long time rosé was dissed, under-appreciated, considered an in-between, washed out, ‘not quite red’ wine as if the flavor was watered down or somehow diluted.  Just the opposite is true.  Good dry rosé is not white wine with a little red mixed in.  Neither is it usually the saignée method of bleeding off color from vats of red wine, which is done to improve the red wine, with the rosé being an economic side effect, a by-blow to help recoup profits.

The finest rosé is always made to be rosé from the very beginning of the process. Specific vines are planted to become the best blend possible of grapes to make rosé. They are grown, harvested, processed, macerated and vinified (separately) to provide the best palette of aromas, flavors and acidity possible when blended. 

For a dedicated rosé producer, both red and white wines are afterthoughts.  The focus, the objective, the goal is to make exceptional rosé.

A recent trip to New Orleans in August, when the heat index went over 105 degrees Fahrenheit and clothes stuck to bodies as soon as you left the air conditioning (it wasn’t a dry heat), verified that rosés can be the perfect wine.  And within three days of New Orleans dining we consumed five different pink/orange delights, all from the South of France. All were moderately priced. And all were delicious with the food, whether Cajun, Creole, deep-fried or grilled, fish or seafood or meat.
Each of the five was unique. Each was distinct. Each had its own style, aroma, flavor.  Finally, dry rosés aplenty.

Red Fish; Pink Wine
At the Redfish Grill we first ordered a rosé from the by-the-glass list.  Alas, we did not get the brand name. It matched our appetizers so well we decided to follow it with a bottle for the main courses of BBQ Shrimp and Grits and Sauteed Scallops, ordering the Jean-LucColombo Cape Bleue Rosé, Provence. 2014.   Sweet scallops, herb/butter sauced shrimp, cheesy grits---the wine accommodated them all effortlessly, and made the foods taste better. The bright acidity of the wine cleansed the palate so each taste was clear and precise, and the intensity of fragrance was supportive of the food, without any attempt to overwhelm it. 

The mark of a good food wine, is when it complements rather than combats the flavors on the plate.

On the second night, at Patrick Van Hoorebeek’s Bar Vin, we settled into the comfortable lounge, a welcome respite from the heat and hustle of Bourbon Street with its reek of stale beer. Much to our delight, but not surprise, Bar Vin also had a nice Provencal rosé, the Bieler Pere et Fils, Coteaux d’Aix enProvence. 2014 on their by-the-glass list.. Again, delightful. Crisp and racy with tart strawberry/raspberry fruit and a lovely pink/orange cast, it was dry, intense and refreshing, a lovely wine to lean back and relax with before we walked the few steps to our restaurant for the evening.

The Days of Fins and Rosés
Had we had enough rosé?  Not at all. At GW Fin’s, a popular seafood restaurant in the Quarter, we decided our dinner choices once again favored the South of France and ordered up a Domaine d’AstrosRosé, IGP Maures, 2014 from the Cotes de Provence..

(One should be observant with d’Astros, for there is both a Chateau d’Astros, a single estate in the Cotes de Provence AOC, and a Domain d’Astros label, owned by the same family but carrying an IGP/Vin du Pays Maures designation.  Both wines are good; but they are quite different and use different grapes. This was the Domaine version, a remarkably solid blend of two different vineyards, one on the slopes, the other on the plain.  The family, after seven generations of winemaking, with eight and nine in the wings, clearly knows what they’re doing with rosé.)

With a plate of GW Fin’s signature dish the “Scalibut”, a thick steak of halibut with scallops tightly arrayed on top, and the assemblage oven-roasted (the scallops looked a bit like toasted marshmallows), the Domaine d’Astros was splendid; a better combination of food and wine simply could not be imagined.  Whether dancing delicately with the light silky sweetness of the scallops or stepping up to match the thick, heavy meat of the halibut, the salmon-hued rosé performed beautifully.  Remaining nervy with mouth-watering acidity and charged with flavor; it was always accommodating, never challenging the food, as a good table wine is supposed to do.

Wherein I speak the local Patois
We were told we absolutely had to go to Patois in Uptown, so we did. And we’re glad we did, because it was a wonderful evening. The folks at Patois are doing an exceptional job at this comfy/casual cottage of fine dining, melding the themes of French, Louisiana, and localitarian-fresh into a stunning personal cuisine.  There’s no hint of pretension, just a friendly but efficient staff and an exceptional flow of profoundly satisfying creations coming out of the kitchen.  The bar is impressive as well; if you go, try their signature Sancho Pimm.

After long consideration, we went the seafood route again.  I mean, c’mon, we’re in New Orleans.  Shrimp Jardinière, which defied the many tired and pallid versions of ho-hum shrimp in lesser restaurants, was a treat, a perfect appetizer.  Succulent, plump shrimp rested on thick, savory slabs of Bellegarde Bakery toast in a shallow pool of achingly fresh minced giardinera of savory and spicy garden vegetables in broth. The Gulf Shrimp Salad was gorgeous and tangy with flavor, a mélange of avocado, grapefruit, arugula, kaffir lime & ginger emulsion.

For the main courses we ordered a monkfish Almondine with roasted potato gallette, buttered green beans & citrus meuniere, and a nicely presented plate of scallops accompanied by Japanese turnips, crispy Coconut Rice Cake, roasted peanuts and one of the most delicate satay sauces I have ever enjoyed.

We hemmed. We hawed. We perused. And once again, despite the many enchantments on the well-chosen wine list, we couldn’t resist rosé: the Commanderie de la Bargemone, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence 2014 called to us, and we answered.

The wine was perfection itself with the food. It supported the fresh aromas and flavors, brought out the natural sweet beauty of the vegetables, and never quarreled or clashed with the exotic spicing of the scallops or the nuttiness of the monkfish. The place, the people, the meal, the wine, all worked together to make a seamless evening.

So.  Now I have a new dream.  Since dry rosé in general has clearly established itself on wine lists (Hooray!), and Provencal Rosé is noticeably at the forefront (as it should be), let’s raise the bar even higher.  My new dream is to be able to go into any good restaurant and find a Bandol Rosé.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Orleans Dining: Shrimp and Grits at the Red Fish Grill

Shrimp and Grits
at the Red Fish Grill
Shrimp and Grits is one of the greatest contributions the South has made to the culinary arts. It is emblematic of Southern cultures from the Atlantic seaboard to the Piney Woods of Texas, with each creating its own particular version.

The base is always the sublime combination of two ingredients found where cornfields and oceans meet. Beyond that, pretty much anything goes, limited only by the imagination of the chef.

While on a business trip traversing the Carolinas some years ago I studiously selected as many restaurants as possible that featured shrimp and grits. It was an amazing voyage of discovery. No dish was the same; some were merely tinkered with; others were massively altered. Some were workaday, some good, and some truly outstanding.

I continued the voyage whenever possible—in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas (somehow I elided Arkansas, but that happens a lot to Arkansas).  Again, the same: no two alike.

Consider the shrimp: small pink shrimp (No) or large, succulent, sweet and chewy (Yes). Consider the sauce: mustard-based, tomato-based, Cajun, Creole, Geechee, New Orleans butter sauce, mild or spicy. And consider the grits?  Who knew there was so much variation in the humble grist of hominy corn?  Well, Southerners have always known: I suspect Northern Italians have as well. Dry, lumpy-clumpy, thin, or thick and creamy and smooth. Salted, peppered, buttered, cream or cheese enhanced.

When you order Shrimp and Grits, you never know what you’re going to get.  Like a box of choco….no, wait, let’s not go there in metaphorland.  Suffice that it will likely be tasty as hell.

In New Orleans, Ralph Brennan's  Red Fish Grill is a casual fish-and-seafood oriented, quasi-Cajun/quasi-Creole restaurant that packs them in. Situated at the very entrance to the French Quarter, it's a half block off Canal on Bourbon Street in the Iberville. 

For the vast amounts of food dished out, Red Fish Grill maintains a high level of quality.  It’s a good place to go for a casual, friendly meal without exorbitant prices (exorbitant being an indeterminate word in the rarefied atmosphere of New Orleans these days).

While perusing the menu carefully, I was aided by a refreshing, fruity and cucumbery Pimm's Cup, just the thing on a hot, muggy New Orleans' August day. Pimm's Cup #1, Tanqueray Gin, lemon, fruit and cucumber: perfect!

It probably won’t surprise you that I ordered their BBQ Gulf Shrimp and Grits.

BBQ Shrimp confuses many of the first time visitors to New Orleans, because it is not what you might think. It has nothing to do with barbecue. It is not slathered in a thick tomato sauce over a slow fire. Do that with brisket and it tenderizes the meat; do that with shrimp and you get tough, dry, jerky-like blobs without flavor that are impossible to chew.  Nope, BBQ Shrimp in New Orleans means the shrimp are grilled quickly over a high heat, and the “BBQ Sauce” is actually a silky-smooth herbed and spiced butter sauce with worcestershire sauce.

The BBQ Shrimp arrived shelled (for the tourists, you know; for natives the shrimp are more likely to be shell-on, if not shell-head-tail on so you can suck out the little globs of whatever it is inside those little heads, a favored pastime of said natives with shrimp and crayfish. But these were the less-messy decapitated version with only the tails intact for little handles.

Jean-Luc Colombo
Cape Bleue
Andouille sausage rounds were sprinkled throughout the sauce bath to add some piquancy and bite.  All this sat on a bed of grits, the creamy epitome of gustatory pleasure; not just grits but cheese grits, with coarse ground hominy and copious amounts of cheddar cheese slowly melded.

And here’s another twist from Red Fish Grill: the chef added sweet potato to the grits, lavished them with a lemon, rosemary and worcestershire butter sauce, and garnished the whole plate with thin crispy fried sweet potato chips for a very Southern salty and sweet potato flavor and crunchy texture.

With the delightful companionship of a sprightly and aromatic Jean-Luc Colombo Cape Bleue Rosé from Provence to clean and refresh the palate---and Provencal Rosé with Shrimp and Grits is a combination not to be missed---the plate was beautiful to behold and an unmitigated pleasure to eat.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Great Grapefruit Beer Debate: Schöfferhofer vs. Stiegl Radler

My many bartender buddies recently turned me on to Stiegl Radler, the delicious Austrian combination of beer and grapefruit soda. I found some, had some, and got so enthused I immediately wrote an article about it.

One of the immediate responses---again from my bartender buddies---touted yet another beer and grapefruit soda concoction, Schöfferhofer.  So of course I had to try it.

“Radler” is a German beverage blend of beer and fruit soda. Think Shandy, which is often lemon.

Both the Stiegl and Schöfferhofer are grapefruit soda…with the difference that Stiegl uses a lager beer and Schöfferhofer a lighter hefeweizen wheat beer.
When I did a little cross-border shopping at Total in Vancouver (hey, Oregonians get the sales tax break so that helps offset the bodacious prices) they didn’t have the Stiegl Radler---but they did have the Schöfferhofer, so I availed myself of a bright orange four-pack.

How was it?, you might ask. And which Radler did you like better?, you will also ask.

The Schöfferhofer was refreshing and quite good: light, bright, fizzy grapefruit laced with unfiltered hefeweizen. During this heat spell we’re having in Oregon, it is especially refreshing, with more liveliness than a Shandy and an automatic affinity with tequila and mezcal. A bit of sea salt, either for rimming or right in the glass, and you’re good to go.

Schöfferhofer versus Stiegl?
They are different, no question there.  The Schöfferhofer, from Dortmunder, Germany, proclaims itself a 50/50 blend of unfiltered hefeweizen (light wheat beer) blended with grapefruit soda, whereas the Stiegl is 40% Salzburger Goldbrau lager bier blended with 60% grapefruit soda.  The Stiegl is the more ‘beery’ of the two, with dense body and richer texture.  Those who favor beer over the soda component will probably prefer the Radler Stiegl; those who like the grapefruit soda component more will reach for the Schöfferhofer.

My preference?  While I certainly wouldn’t turn down a Schöfferhofer, I much prefer the Stiegl. It has more beer flavor at base and seems to have a more natural grapefruity taste. The Schofferhofer is closer to a soda, lighter, with a little sweet beery flavor to it.

I also asked two of the best bartenders I know, Jacob Grier and Jabriel Donohue, their opinions on the two beverages.

Jacob Grier, bartender non pareil and author of “Cocktails On Tap “, which extolls the delights of using beer in cocktails (and which you should own a copy of), replied “I've had the Stiegl, but not the Schöfferhofer. To be honest I'm a little lukewarm on the pre-bottled Radler trend, though I enjoyed the Stiegl as a hot day session beer after drinking a few more substantial ales.

Jabriel Donohue, a thoroughgoing professional bartender, bar manager, and proficient developer of bar concepts, as well as Sales Manager for the popular BG Reynolds line of tiki syrups, waxed more enthusiastically on fruit beer sodas:  "As a rule I believe that Radlers are confirmation that even during a heat wave, God loves us and wants us to be happy. While Schofferhofer is tasty in its own right, it skews to the sugary side for me, making more than one a potential recipe for a stomach ache. For my money, Stiegl is still the reigning champion both for its balance of citrus and sweetness as well as its session-ability. Pair it with a complex agave based spirit such as the Mezcal Vago Elote and the dog days of summer become something to look forward to."

Proving that nothing is new these days, there’s an enthusiastic blogger, Beer Nut, who staged the same comparison tasting.  What did Beer Nut think? He picked the Stiegl, but wouldn’t kick the Schöfferhofer out of bed either.

So there you have it: bright, refreshing icy cold concoctions of zesty grapefruit soda with light silky beer, and a general consensus that some tasty glugging happens when you throw serious spirits in the mix.  I’ve always believed that the combination of agave spirits and grapefruit is a perfect match (as do all those Mexicans who drink their Paloma cocktails). Adding beer to the grapefruit and agave seems even better, doesn’t it?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Proof Positive: Old Forester Signature 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Proof Positive Cocktail
@ Proof on Main
If you want positive proof of the excellence of fine bourbon in a cocktail, all you need do is travel to Louisville, Kentucky and visit “Proof on Main” at the artsy/cool 21c Museum/Hotel, a mere stone’s throw from the once and future famous ‘Whiskey Row’, soon to be the new home of Old Forester Bourbon.

(Proof is an archaic English term from the practice of ‘proving’ to suspicious British sailors that their legal daily ration of booze was of sufficient alcoholic strength and not diluted. If you mixed an alcohol spirit with gunpowder and it burned with a clear blue flame, that was proof it was full strength. Eventually the standard in America was established as 50% alcohol by volume equaling 100 Proof---or 100% proof that it was at least 50% alcohol.)

Settle in at the bar at Proof. The best seat might be near the leering bronze satyr statue, one of the more artistic touches in this exceedingly artistic combination of art museum/hotel/restaurant/bar, where you can enjoy the art---in physical, culinary and cocktail form---while looking out over the restoration of the historical center of Main Street and the ceaseless flow of the Ohio River.

Whiskey Row facade; soon to be the home of Old Forester.
There is an impressive selection of cocktails, whiskey flights and special collections that makes it difficult to decide. But whiskey aficionados looking for a superb bourbon cocktail need look no further than the most popular cocktail on the list, the “Proof Positive.” 

It is, without question, one of the finest bourbon cocktails I’ve had, a near-perfect, exquisitely balanced, boozy bourbon blast that evokes the classic Old Fashioned and the Manhattan at the same time. And, amazingly enough, it outdoes both of those icons.

But there’s more proof at hand in the Proof Positive.

First, there is the proof in Old Forester Signature 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon of the richness and depth of an old-style bourbon from the 1800s; then there’s proof that the “rye-heavy” recipe makes for a profoundly pleasing dram; and finally there’s the proof that high proof in a bourbon can be rich and flavorful and surpassingly mellow without being in the least bit harsh or hot. The proof is in the bottle and in the glass.

Old Forester Signature 100 Proof
Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Old Forester is as classic as bourbon can get. In Bluegrass Country, heritage is as important in bourbon as it is in horseflesh. It began in 1870 when George Garvin Brown had the brilliant idea of selling bourbon not by the cask but by the bottle, sealed and labeled and signed by Mr. Brown as his personal guarantee of quality. He even named it (with a slight spelling change) after Old Doc Forrester, the then most respected medical doctor in genteel Louisville.  In those days, doctors prescribed as much bourbon medicinally as bartenders dispensed recreationally, so purity was important.

Today, Old Forester Straight Kentucky Bourbon is the only continually producing family-owned bourbon since 1870, all the way through Prohibition until today.

Old Forester has an impressive portfolio of bourbons, with the standard 86 Proof leading the sales; the Signature 100 Proof, which used to be the old designation of “Bottled in Bond” cherished by whiskey lovers who also love bargains; the prized collector’s single-vintage edition released each year in honor of its founder, George Garvin Brown’s Birthday Bourbon; and now the addition of new iterations that are taking the bourbon world by storm, the 1870 and the 1897 Bottled In Bond, both created to reflect the style of those significant years in Old Forester’s history. The latest iteration, a limited release, is the Old Forester Single Barrel 90 Proof---which reportedly already has a backlog of orders for several months.

Cocchi Rosa
Aperitivo Americano
Proof on Main uses the Old Forester Signature 100 Proof for its Proof Positive. The Signature may be the finest expression possible of bourbon at a high proof mark; it certainly makes that case in this, um, signature cocktail.

Combine the rich, mellow, intensely aromatic Signature with bright and lively Cocchi Americano Rosa, a rosé version of a bitter Italian aperitivo imported by Haus Alpenz, house-made bitters, orange bitters, and a touch of local Kentucky sorghum syrup and you have one of the best whiskey cocktails imaginable.  It is perfectly balanced in every way, profoundly rich and mouth-filling, a compelling combination of oak, fruit, corn and sorghum sweetness and leathery rye spice. It begins as an orange-laced Old Fashioned that changes mid-taste to a spicy, tangy vermouth-driven Manhattan without ever losing the strong central core of lush bourbon whiskey, all the way down to the last few drops in the glass.

So there you are. The proof is in the Proof Positive at Proof.

Need more proof? If you can’t travel to Louisville, buy a bottle of Old Forester Signature 100 Proof Straight Kentucky Bourbon. You can thank me later.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Things I've Learned from Bartenders: Radler Stiegl

Craft bartenders are the most focused people in the world. They have their antenna out for any new thing, or for any improvement on an old thing. They’re tuned in to a vast social network, partaking in but far beyond Facebook and Twitter.  These people are the earliest of ‘early adapter’ types; if there is something trending, they’ll know of it, and probably have already experienced it. And if it’s not trending, they have the capability to make it so.

Fernet Branca was one of those things that languished in obscurity in the U.S. Only a handful of people even knew of it, and most of those from traveling in Europe.  But it became a thing with craft bartenders, and suddenly it was “their” drink. Nothing fancy, a shot of Fernet Branca with a beer back. The beer was usually something bland and relatively insipid, a PBR or Miller Lite or Shiner. And pretty soon, once bartenders started talking about it, and finding more and more uses for Fernet Branca in their cocktails, it became a “thing”.

Fernet Branca is still going strong. It’s still the leader of the pack of astoundingly austere black bitter brews, but other Fernets are gaining traction now that there’s a perceived market.  (In case you don’t know, “Fernet” is the name of a type of bitter spirit; Branca is the particular brand name.)

But now, there’s a new thing. Fizzy/fruity beer/soda.

Have you heard of Radler Stiegl?  What whatsit, you say?

No, Radler Stiegl is not a guy with a cool name; it’s a popular beverage from Salzburg, Austria with a cool name, and it’s a thing with bartenders. Try one and you’ll see why.

Radler Stiegl is a beer beverage laced with grapefruit, 40% beer and 60% grapefruit. It is wickedly delicious by itself, served chilled or on the rocks, with a twist of fruit.  It is even more profoundly tasty with a shot of Mezcal, something smoky like the del Maguey La Vida or the exotic Mezcal Vago. With Tequila, the Radler Stiegl is a total winner---tequila and grapefruit are a natural marriage, soul mates, one complimenting the other. Add beer and you’ve got a sortakinda La Paloma, Mexico's favorite way to consume tequila..

The Stiegl is only 3.2% alcohol, so even with a stiff shot of tequila or mezcal it’s not an alcohol bomb. Much like a Paloma or Mojito, it’s a drink designed to promote a fairly moderate way of consuming an alcohol beverage. (Of course, as always, responsible consumption is appropriate.) The Radler Stiegl is packed in a shrink-wrapped four pack of pint cans (16.9 ounces each). One can should be good for a couple of tall glasses with ice.

It’s not that easy to find---you are at the beginning of a trend, remember---but it is out there. You’ll begin to see it in trendy bars first, then in the better liquor stores (PDX Peeps: Hollywood Liquors has it). It’s packaged in colorful shrink-wrapped four packs.

Better move fast, though, if you want to be out on the cutting edge: a bartender buddy just told me about the Schőfferhofer Grapefruit, a Hefe-Weizen beer mix
ed with grapefruit juice.

Sounds good; of course, I’ll have to try it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rum Club: a Treffehn Trifecta

The Lawn Dart
So I’m meeting Justin Siemer, bartender buddy, late night at the Rum Club. Sunday night and the place is jumping. Guys come wandering in with new bloody tattoos, one sporting a ‘Wisconskull” with great panache, another a moustache of classic proportions---no, not a moustache tattoo, a moustache, waxed and coiled and handsome. The patio is socked full, there’s vaping in one corner and in the other a couple swallowing each other’s tongues con mucho gusto.

Mike Treffehn is at the bar, headband already soaked in sweat, moving as fast as he can in the rushes, taking the spare moments to relax in between. And there aren’t a lot of spare moments.

You can also use Squirt
It was the end of Negroni Week, and I was obligated to do my part, so I ordered their odd, totally unexpected but nonetheless delightfully refreshing Negroni of the Week, the Lawn Dart.  All in a good cause, I said. Don’t know what the cause was, but I’m sure it was good. The Negroni sure was.

The Lawn Dart is a light, fizzy, pink grapefruit cooler in a Collins glass. Fresh, lively, zingy but cool and refreshing too, it’s a combination of gin, Cocchi Americano, Campari, house made tonic syrup and grapefruit soda (they used Jarritos Grapefruit).

With a touch of sea salt to bring out the grapefruit even more clearly, this one is an ideal summertime cooler, with restrained bitterness. Not as bold and dominating as a full-blown classic Negroni, but then, this version would be easy to knock back three or four of on a warm sunny day.

A lovely little bitter thing, this Cocchi Americano.
Armagnac/Rhum Sidecar

Freshly juiced with the Lawn Dart (like its namesake, fun but dangerous), I felt the old yearning for a nice, brisk, cleansing sour, so I asked Treffehn to whip up a Sidecar/Between The Sheets-ish one-off with a half part cognac and half part rum and a full part triple sec.

Wow! One tasty little creation this is---only I didn’t end up with cognac (didn’t care for their one selection available at that moment) and Treffehn pulled out a De Montal Armagnac.  Whoa! Interesting.  So it turned out to be Armagnac and the Rhum St. Barth Cool white rum sharing the bill.

The improvised cocktail worked perfectly, with the earthiness and wood tones of the Armagnac making a lovely solid base and the Rhum St. Barth driving a rich aromatic grassiness out of the glass.  Funny; sometimes it’s those things you don’t normally think of putting together that work out so well.

De Montal Armagnac
When Siemer arrived he went straight for the Rhum St. Barth, asking Treffehn to whip up something, anything, surprise him. When it was delivered up I asked for a taste. And I did not at first recognize it for a piña colada.

Which it was. Treffehn puffed up a little with some (well-earned) indignation and pride, explaining that piña coladas are most often made wrong and are most often too sweet and sticky and unbalanced and all clogged up and clabbered with chunky-slimy texture.  Which he’s right, of course.  And where have I heard this before? Oh, hello Morgenthaler. Nice Grasshopper you’ve got there.

Do you like Pina Colada's?
Treffehn’s Piña Colada is none of the aforementioned. 

The Rhum St. Barth comes out first (again a lovely sweet floral grassiness driven by its 100 Proof), then a light, almost coconut-water fruit, not as thick and creamy as coconut cream, followed by a restrained pineapple character, not too sweet. It is not heavy, or clunky, or chunky or slimy.  It is not over-balanced toward either coconut or pineapple and doesn't have the artificial tinny taste of canned fruit. In short, a well-made, carefully crafted, and nicely balanced drink.

Rhum St. Barth.
Cool Runnings
Upon successive sips, the Rhum St. Barth continues to hold its own with the coconut and pineapple, keeping the balance intact, never letting eirther element dominate.  This is not a fruit drink: it is an agricole rhum drink. There's a difference.


So, a trifecta. Three drinks; all winners. Major payout. Don’t know why I’m suddenly going with horseracing metaphors. Maybe it’s the still buzzing high of the Triple Crown. Maybe it's the unaccustomed giddiness of midnight communion in the Rum Club.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Obscure Delights: Grosjean Freres Torrette, Valle d'Aoste, 2012

Nostrana’s superbly maintained wine list and a late evening dinner with Jake Parrot, omni-connoisseur  of alcoholic beverages, conjoined to re-acquaint me with the wines of the Vallee d’Aoste (or Val d’Aosta, depending upon your language preference) via the Vinirari Balteo 2010.

We all need reminders, from time to time, of wines we like but just don’t get enough of, in part because they are simply not available on most wine lists.

When I came across another good Valle d’Aosta red at Bar Avignon, I didn’t even hesitate.

I’m a sucker for alpine wines and the Grosjean FreresTorrette 2012 is a great example of why: exceptionally clean, precise, bright, high acidity, well developed red fruit aromas and flavors and usually not a lot of either vanilla oak or tannin to fight through.

This small and gorgeous valley has always been a conduit  for merchants and tourists, located as it is in far northwestern Italy, sitting at the northernmost stretch of the Piedmont just underneath the Swiss Alps, and offering a comfortable passageway to France immediately next door. The multilingual and multicultural influences are obvious, combining Swiss-German, French and Italian.

Valle d’Aoste wines profited little from the wine boom of the last fifty years or so. Volume was not high---the valley wine growers are neither numerous nor export-oriented and most quietly make their wines primarily for local consumption; this DOC is the smallest of Italy’s wine regions, both in area and production. Alpine wines seemed to focus on obscure, unknown, and hard to pronounce indigenous varieties and blends (Fumin or Vien de Nus, anyone?), with grapes better known from other regions sprinkled around, as in Nebbiolo, Gamay, Chardonnay, which leaves the Valle d’Aosta with its own style.

During the greatest growth of wine culture, alpine wines, with their lean, often tart and acidic and nervy style, did not seem to resonate with the drinking public that wanted massively tannic reds and opulent vanilla-spiced whites drowned in oak. The Italian Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, the wines from the Austrian and German Alps, the French wines of the Haut-Savoie and the lean and chiseled Swiss wines continued to languish in relative obscurity, consumed mostly by skiers and tourists.

But times, and tastes, change. And even though many Americans still prefer the big and boisterous attention-grabbing wines, the ones that announce themselves in loud voices and shove everything else aside (often including the food on the table), the Grosjean Torrette impresses with its balance, its restraint, its remarkable flexibility with foods.

Along with the suave silkiness of the French and the angular precision of the Swiss, the Grosjean Torrette also displays a particularly Italian quality:  it is a quiet, polite and utterly charming table companion and speaks, as the Italians say, sotto voce.

Grosjean makes several wines. The Torrette is an indigenous blend of 80% Petit Rouge together with a varying amount of Vien de Nus, Doucet, Fumin and Mayolet.  (Recall that I mentioned the indigenous and obscure nature of the grapes here?) The vineyard sites are at an altitude of 550-650m and trained using the Guyot system, allowing the vines to drape down the terraced hillside.  In a marginal climate where ripeness is paramount and sometimes not easily attainable, this form of trellising gives the growers a slight but noticeable edge in that regard. The wine ages in both stainless steel and oak casks.

Grosjean Torrette is similar to Beaujolais more than anything.  But not just Beaujolais, a stellar Cru Beaujolais from a top producer, and most specifically a Morgon by respected producers Burgaud, Desvignes or Foillard.  Tart and mouth-watering with ripe but not over-ripe red fruits---mingled cherries, strawberries and a bit of blackberry plumpness---and bright with lively acidity, while relatively low in tannins, the Torrette is smooth, light to medium-bodied with a hint of earth and smoke. 

When served with food, the balanced combination of tart fruit and bright acidity is a perfect companion, livening up the tastebuds to bring out the flavors of lighter foods, while providing a pleasant cleansing astringency for heavier, fattier fare. The wine suits the delicious cuisine at Bar Avignon with an easy versatility.

Grosjean Torrette. Because sometimes you don’t want a blockbuster wine.