Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rkatsitelli. Rkatsi...what? Rkatsi...who?

It's one of the world's most ancient wine grapes.

It's also one of the most widely grown grapes in the world. It's all the rage in Russia and Georgia.

And you've probably never had it. Hell, you may have never heard of it before (unless you're one of those starry-eyed wine geek types).

In Russia and Georgia, it's pretty much the all-purpose workhorse grape. It's used for everything: dry, sweet, sparkling, dessert, whatever.

But there are plantings of this ancient variety in other places---albeit in small amounts. One such is in the well-known wine-growing state of...Massachusetts. And there's some in the Finger Lakes too.

One I sampled just recently, courtesy of a gift from my friend Jason Brandt Lewis---yes, THE Jason Brandt Lewis, legendary wine personality and wine forum provocateur and general know-it-all-been-there-done-that of wine---was the Westport Rivers Rkatsiteli 2005 Northeast New England.

Weighing in at a surprisingly moderate 11.2% alcohol (!), this estate grown Rkatsitelli is worth a try. After all, what wine lover wouldn't try something this out of the ordinary, eh?

It's typical in the light, spicy, tangy elements; and it's technically a correctly made wine and decent enough withal. When I sampled it with some students during a course session on the ancient history of wine, it was quite well received.

But for me, it had an unmistakable and immediately apparent odor---and subsequent flavor---of that musky (and often musty) Muscadine grape native to the east coast of the U.S. And that is, as we say in the business when we're being noncommittal or damning with faint praise, "an acquired taste."

I acquired my first taste of it when I was very young, by sampling a local fresh-picked wild Muscadine homemade wine in Georgia (the other one, the one that wasn't invaded by the Soviet Union, just rawboned Anglo-Irish immigrants). Despite that experience, I later went back to taste more Muscadine---this time as a professional, thinking it was my duty to do so so I would be informed, and actually know whereof I speak, and this time from vineyards in Arkansas. There was even a white Muscadine and a red Muscadine. I tasted both. to make sure.

After acquiring that taste, I felt no particular need to acquire any more tastes. So, if you're guessing I'm not particularly overwhelmed by this wine, you would be correct.

What's intriguing about this connection between wild Muscadine and the Rkatsiteli is that the grapes are from two entirely different origins. Rkatsiteli has an ancient lineage derived from the trans-Caucasus region, and is vitis vinifera. Muscadine is from America, and is vitis labrusca. By rights, Rkatsiteli shouldn't have any reference to Muscadine, or "foxiness", whatsoever. But such is the way the mind works---well, mine at least---that one clearly reminds me of the other. Strange, but there it is.

Again, it's not a bad is simply not very interesting or likable to me. That 'foxy' wild native American grape smell just doesn't do it for me. Nice acidity, actually. Good body, with a light touch of sweetness that doesn't cloy, and some tangy-spicy flavors, in the mode of a Gewurztraminer, or perhaps Muscat. But there's that Muscadine-ness, that Muscadine-osity...

If you're on the East Coast, you might try it if you get the chance. Your mileage may well vary. And for what it is, it's good. Heck, it's undoubtedly the single best Rkatsiteli I've ever had! (Although I'm told on good authority that the version from Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in New York is pretty impressive. Maybe I'll try that some day.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kesslers Cassoulet Dinner: The Overture

At last, the long awaited evening had arrived, and the Favored Few began to gather at Casa Kessler in the Napa Valley. It was, at long last and at long distance (why the hell else would I voluntarily drive from Portland to Napa?), the night of Cassoulet.

After we were warmly welcomed by our hosts, Lou and BettyLu, we all naturally gravitated to the wine bar, where Lou had arranged his choices of the evening as our aperitif wines.

What to taste, what to taste?

As usual, I'll start with a Gruner Veltliner. Lou pours a Weingut Knoll Loibner Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 2001 from the bottle with one of the most lavishly beautiful labels in the business. The wine inside does easy justice to the label outside too. It has the nose-prickling aromas of celery salt and fresh, crisp spring green vegetables, that sensuous silky slide of Smaragd with the tight acids firmly supporting it, and just the right amount of weight and resonance on the palate.

Here's to the Green Lizard! It's a lovely way to begin the evening, and to prepare for what's ahead.

Since I'm already in Austria, it makes sense to stay there, so I move right over to the Franz Hirtzberger Singerriedl-Riesling Smarad 2001.

Smaragd Rules! Or Rocks! I'm never quite sure.

As lovely as the Gruner was, this Riesling has a definite snap to it; it commands attention, and rewards it as well. Pure, bright, piercing acids drive the tightly-wound flowers and fruits. This is, in the very essence of the phrase, a mouth-watering wine. The clarity, the richness-in-austerity, is amazing, and it is singularly difficult to put this wine down.

There are few things better than a Riesling when it is done right.

But I yield the space in my glass, because the next wine has
become, in a very short time, one of my favorites. The doughty Florida Jim turned me on to this originally with one of his tasting notes, and I first had it at Lou's house. Now I'm back again, and here's the Albarino Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas (Very Old Vines) 2007 from the Rias Baixas. There might be a better Albarino---I'm willing to allow that---but if there is, I've never had it.

I have never been to the Rias Baixas, but simply on the evidence of this gorgeous wine, I'd sure like to go. And I'd like to see these Cepas Vellas in person; they look so impressive in the pictures, and they turn out a wine that is complex, intriguing, and lush with flavor---while maintaining that firm core of acids that have become a requirement for me, and for what I love in my wines.

But there's more wine, and little time left, and while the constant supply of tiny bites go around, and the lively discussions reach a higher pitch from wine-loosened tongues, I venture the last two aperitif wines.

And those tiny bites? Let's not ignore them. BettyLu has prepared some delicious hors d'oeuvres for us...tiny cheese puffs with olives that are instantly habituating, sort of an Italianate gougeres; some canapes with the tang of walnuts and red peppers that perfectly play off the wines; sinfully rich chicken liver pate on croutons... There's never a shortage of good things to tantalize the palate when BettyLu's at the helm.

There's the Vatan Sancerre Clos de Neore 2006. It has become a standard for these dinners, and justly so---if for no other reason than Mark Anisman goes directly to it on arrival (Gee,what a surprise!). But, hey, if you've found a delicious, intensely aromatic, and richly flavored Chavignol Sancerre, why go anywhere else? This is Sauvignon Blanc in the classic style, from the classic area, and it still serves as a damned good argument for what Sauvignon Blanc should be.

Then, for the finish, there's the surprise Lou has in store...a charming Chenin Blanc from the legendary house of Huet, a Le Haut-Lieu Vouvrary Demi-Sec 2002!

This ripe melon, honey and soursop Chenin Blanc, with just a bit of sweetness balanced out to a sweet-sour with bracing acids, is lovely all by itself; it also does a great job bringing out the flavors of the appetizers, playing point and counterpoint effortlessly.

But I'm at the point of embarrassing myself with those appetizers---they are just too good to resist---and I have to slow down a little, because I know this is still the Overture, and I know what is to come, and I want to be ready for The Main Event.

But, um, could I possibly have just one more round of the little olive-y cheese puffs, please? I have a sip or two of the Vouvray left.

Oh oh! They're calling us to the table...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cognac Pierre Ferrand--The 1er Cru du Cognac, Part IV: A Cask Strength and an Ancestrale

And so the delectable tasting of Cognac Pierre Ferrand comes to its inevitable close.

But first, Guillaume Lamy, VP-USA of Cognac Ferrand, shows that his class is equal to the quality of his Cognac, by revealing the two surprises he has in store.

Look to the left and you'll see a small vial of golden mahogany fluid, and behind the row of three Cognacs a tissue wrapped bottle. Those are the pleasant surprises, the lagniappe of the tasting.

The first, in the small vial, is a hand-carried sample of a Cask Strength Selection des Anges 30 Year Old. It is fascinating to have this opportunity to compare the finished version of the Selection des Anges against a Cask Strength---with the only difference being the amount of alcohol. Yet that amount of alcohol makes a tremendous difference---and speaks eloquently to the practice of reducing the alcohol strength to allow the delicacies of aroma and flavor to emerge. The Cask Strength has many of the characteristics of the finished Selection des Anges, but has a greater density, a hotter burn, and is more impenetrable. There's less of the floral and fruit (the "lighter" elements) and much more of the caramel and chocolate (the "heavier" elements). The same components are there, but the emphasis is entirely different. The finished version shows much more elegance, balance and harmony, where the Cask Strength is force majeure.

The Ancestrale, however, is an entirely different creature from what has come before. Keep in mind we have jumped from 30 years of age to 70 years! And the proof is before us, without doubt.

Contrary to what most 'casual' drinkers have been led to believe, most whiskies and brandies---and that type of brandy called Cognac included---do not benefit particularly from vastly extending the time in barrel. The flavor impacts of the wood reach their limits within a few years, and the evaporation and oxidation increase significantly; in the case of the Ancestrale, the evaporation factor is up to a staggering 89%!

Most Cognacs, quite frankly, can't handle this. That is why this Ancestrale and others of its ilk are exceedingly rare. And why only 300 bottles of Ancestral are released in a given year.

The Ancestrale is based primarily on the 1928 Vintage, with judicious mingling of other very carefully selected years to 'round out' the final version.

And the Ancestrale, because of both age and ancestry, is a very different style of Cognac. We've entered into another realm here, for the Ancestrale seems almost to be hearkening back to its origins, revealing a deeper, more wine-like character. There is a distinct (to me) reverberation of a Pineau des Charentes, that intriguing and fruity/grapey regional blend of (usually) inexpensive wine laced with inexpensive basic Cognac.

On the other hand, there's an amazing density of tertiary aromas and flavors here---with the emphasis on tertiary. While the dried flowers and crystallized fruits are there, the dominant elements are the tobacco, walnuts, caramel, and chocolate; while the spice elements---cinnamon, clove and mingled curry spices---are quieter, more peripheral or subdued. And then there is the delightful and evocative impression of Madeira at the finish---the ultimate, I think, of the rancio effect that Cognac is known for in its more aged and elaborated versions.

With Ancestrale, you are constantly aware of consuming a well-aged Cognac, and that this is as different from the "basic" Cognac as....well, as different as Cognac is from its wine base, I suppose.

And there is a moment---I think for all of us there---where we quietly pay reverence to this transformation (I prefer transmutation, of course) to something unique, an undefinable something that did not exist before, and is the result of the changes brought about by maturation alone.

And we should all be so lucky as to look this good when we're 70 years old!

My thanks again to the folks from Cognac Pierre Ferrand for offering and conducting this tasting, and to the great people at the Oregon Bartender's Guild and the Blue Hour Restaurant for assisting to make it happen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cognac Pierre Ferrand--The 1er Cru du Cognac, Part III--Selection des Anges 30 Year old

Selection des Anges is a 30 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac.

It is also a Cognac in a class by itself.

This blog is all about believing in magic, the magic of the fabled elixir vitae, the vital essence of life.

I believe in the old alchemical idea of magic through science, the magic of the alembic to transmute one form or element into another, and by doing so create ardent spirits. Creating something that was not there before.

Nowhere does the magic of the alembic hold truer than in Cognac. Nowhere is it embodied better than in the fabled Grande Champagne, the center and heart of Cognac firmly rooted in chalk soil. And one of the best representatives of that magic is the Cognac of Pierre Ferrand, for here there are three different magics at work: the magic of alchemical distillation in the classic pot stills; the magic of the transmutation of age and maturation; and the magic of the blender’s art.

All three magics are on full display with Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges. This 30 Year Old Cognac expression comes from the most carefully selected barrels of reserved stock from the Grande Champagne vineyards, distilled in the smallest allowed copper alembic stills, and then allowed to age in the cellars.

The oak barrels from the Limousin forests are used to contain the young cognacs and slowly influence them as they mature. Some barrels are placed in dry cellars; some are in more humid cellars---all to generate differing expressions of the same cognacs as the eaux-de-vie slowly alter and mutate into a different form, each barrel a unique expression of aroma and flavor. (And, mind you, each barrel may surrender 50% or more of its liquid to evaporation---hence the name, alluding to the angel’s share.)

Then the Master Blender exerts his magic by carefully sampling all the different barrels and selecting those with the proper age and proper style to add a particular facet to the eventual blend. And through this blend, the Master has created something that had not existed before, and which will likely never exist in quite the same way again, for each blend is as particular and precise as a fingerprint or a snowflake or a spiral helix of DNA.

We’ve progressed now to the third of Pierre Ferrand’s Cognac iterations. The Ambre was pure warm comfort. The Réserve was deep and dense. The Selection des Anges enters into an entirely different territory. Here the essential basic aromas, nuances of bouquet and flavors have transformed into different elements of age, maturation and the magic of the blender’s art.

The fresh citrus that characterized the Ambre is now crystallized fruit. The dried roses of the Réserve have compacted and intensified into jasmine and violet. The soft cinnamon has become spicy-warm ginger, laced with nutmeg. There’s floral honey, and toasted nuts, and soft vanilla. A fragrant suffusion of dried herbs has appeared, mingling with a distinct note of…curry! And at the finish there is a cedar/menthol tang. The density of the Reserve has transmuted into an ethereal and beguiling brew, as if the liquid is on the verge of shifting itself into a gaseous state once again.

Enjoying the Selection des Anges is something of a balancing act for a moment, since the mélange of aromas is so compelling, so irresistible, that I fiddle and fuss with the glass, trying to find exactly the right position and angle from my nose to maximize the uninterrupted flow from glass to nostrils, and thus directly into that voracious olfactory bulb in my brain. Sounds silly, I know; but it seemed serious at the time.

But thankfully, the liquid is still there, and has not resolved totally into aromatic vapors. Only the most delicate of sips will do here---there is an instinct from the beginning not to overdo, to eke out, to make this Cognac and its pleasures last as long as possible. You do not drink the Selection des Anges so much as you slowly perceive all its elements, with all your senses, and you take all the time you need.

And unlike some things that seem too good to be true, and are, the Selection des Anges delivers on all its promises, for the liquid softly sends its aromatic enticements up to the nose and down the throat to warm you from within. And the finish just seems to linger forever and ever and ever…

And there, finally, is the triune magic of the Selection des Anges, where the alembic, the blender, and time have conspired to create the culmination of something that was not there before.

This is a profound Cognac, more an experience than a beverage. And try as I might, I don’t think I can ever satisfactorily describe it to you. All I can do, honestly, is urge you to try it yourself, for it is something you have to experience yourself to understand and appreciate.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cognac Pierre Ferrand---The 1er Cru du Cognac, Part II: Reserve 20 Year OId

Cognac Pierre Ferrand Grande Champagne
Reserve - 20 Year Old

From the Ferrand Ambre, a 10 Year Old blend, we moved to the Ferrand Reserve at double the age.

The Reserve is a brilliant yellow-gold moving into dark amber, and the increased age gives it more depth and density.

The fresh roses have transitioned to dried roses, and the bright citrus has softened and mellowed into something richer and more diffuse. A distinct note of honey pervades the nose, and the texture is dense, soft, and silky.

The vanilla-spice is more pronounced---as one might expect with the ten additional years of aging--- and more of the pastry baking odors come forth, with dried apple pie and cinnamon dominating initially.

Slowly and subtly, nuances of clove, burnt orange peel, and cocoa begin to emerge, then a whiff of licorice, and tobacco leaf and toasted nuts.

All the edges are rounded in this Cognac and all the elements are mingled in perfect harmony with each other. The ardent fire found in younger or lesser Cognacs is here banked to a soft, glowing warmth.

This is a very living testament to both the terroir of the Grande Champagne and the fine nose of the Master Blender of Pierre Ferrand. All Cognacs are, of course, a sum of their parts, and when you begin with superb lots you expect a superlative result. But the Reserve actually transcends the parts and becomes even more---deeper, rounder, richer, and infinitely more complex and compelling. This is a contemplative Cognac for eking out the quiet hours of the night, and reflecting on things profound.

Next up, the Selection des Anges, the legendary Ancestrale, and that special surprise I mentioned before.

For more information on Cognac Pierre Ferrand, go to their excellent website at

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cognac Pierre Ferrand---The 1er Cru du Cognac (Part I)

When the etheric grapevine started humming with the news that Cognac Pierre Ferrand would be hosting a tasting of its portfolio of exceptional cognacs at the Blue Hour/l'heure bleu in Portland, I saved the date, both digitally and with a firm-handed notation on the old-fashioned paper calendar, because I did not want to miss this.

Cognac Pierre Ferrand is one of my all time favorite cognacs---which is in a way remarkable, because it is also one of the newest of my favorites. The Ferrand company has been around only since the late 1900s, after all...although the foundations of the company, the property in the Grande Champagne, and the production of cognacs has been existent for a long, long time.

Although time passed slowly and my anticipation was barely bridled, the designated day finally came around and I hustled down to the Blue Hour so as to be prompt (early) to grab a front row seat. The personable, poised and informative Guillaume Lamy, well-spoken spokesperson and Vice President of Cognac Ferrand USA, was our host.

Guillaume gave a brief but thorough background on both the Cognac region and how Cognac Ferrand is made, then proceeded to the tasting we were by now eagerly anticipating.

Guillaume began the tasting, though, not with the finished Cognac...but with samples of Cognac-in-process! He had most thoughtfully brought with him sample vials of a first-distillation cognac alongside another sample of a higher-proof second distillation cognac. The differences were quite impressive; both showed the distinctive grapiness and raw alcohol, but the first clearly had more of the oils, acids, esters, and congeners intact, whereas the second showed much more concentration and refinement.

Then, a second comparison sampling was posed for us, with two vials of non-matured cognac side by side. One was an example of cognac distilled on the lees; the second was cognac distilled without lees. Again, there was a clearly discernible difference between the two, with the cognac on the lees being much more effusive, much more complex, and showing far more profound elements of aromatic complexity and full body. Cognac Ferrand, it turns out, goes the extra step of distilling on the lees.

Then it was time for the finished product, and Guillaume poured around from a bottle of Ferrand Ambre.

Aaaaand, here’s where Cognac Ferrand started earning that designation they claim on their prestige bottles to be the “1er Cru du Cognac”.

Ambre bears the designation of Grande Champagne Cognac, which requires a minimum of two years in oak casks before blending and bottling. Even the highest granted designation of Cognac, XO or Napoleon, currently requires only 6 years maturation.

But here it's about the house style rather than a declaration of age. This is the standard bearer of the house of Pierre Ferrand.

Though it's not stated, Ambre is a 10 Year Cognac. And it is totally unlike all those “entry level” Cognacs you’ve had before. This is mellow, rounded, richly aromatic, redolent of prunes and apricots and peaches…and surprisingly little wood, for the wood here is transmuted into light spicy cinnamon and vanillin, and fully integrated into the flavor profile. As the aromas develop, there’s a distinct floral note that emerges---for me it was the faint scent of roses. At the next heady whiff I thought of fresh fruit pastries baking, with a wisp of almond paste or marzipan.

Unlike lesser cognacs, there’s no hot scalding burn of alcohol intruding, no rough edges, and no harshness---just gentle, mellow aroma and flavor that seems to go on forever, with each sip yielding more nuance as it trickles slowly down the throat.

This is superb Cognac. Simply superb. Every good bar should have this.

For more information on Cognac Pierre Ferrand, I refer you to their website at

But wait...there's more! Coming up next, the Cognac Pierre Ferrand special bottlings: Reserve, Selection des Anges, and Ancestrale. And a special surprise, courtesy of M. Lamy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

There's Trouble Brewin' In Them Thar Piedmont Hills!

There's trouble going on in the bucolic rolling hills of the Piedmont region of Italy.

And it's all about Barbera.

Seems the Consorzio and other interested promotional parties decided to hold a conference/showcase in the Piedmont, featuring many of the producers of Barbera. They wanted to emphasize the pioneering steps they were taking, and the stylistic changes they were making, all in an effort to make Barbera seem, in the words of one of the more passionate of the locals, "important".

Okay, so far, so good. Catch a little limelite, do a little tap dance, get some media coverage---all pretty standard.

But the consorzio was either terribly hip and up-to-date with trends, or had some advisors that were keyed in to cutting edge social media, because somebody came up with the idea to capitalize on the new internet standard of blogging and tweeting to reach a wider audience.

Several bloggers were invited to attend (expenses paid, as is often the case for formal press to get them to come, and is irresistible to the new wave blogistas, since most of them don't have any wherewithal to get there without being financed). Naturally---and this should come as little surprise---the bloggers said (and this is not an exact quote, but probably close to what actually happened), "Well, hell yeah!!!!"

And so the eager bloggers, PCs and Apples in hand, made their trek to Piedmont. They were wined. The were dined. They were toured, and they were tasted and they were seminared constantly. (They are actually there, right now, as I tap out this article.)

And did they blog? You bet they did. With fervor. The publicity started coming. Real time, baby!

Only one tiny little thing marred the event: what if you gave a wine party, and no one liked the wine? And then said so? Loudly and longly?

All is not well at Barbera Meeting 2010.

You can get some idea of the tension and turmoil here, at the official Barbera 2010 website and blog aggregator, helmed by Jeremy Parzen.

Or you can take a look at some individual blogsites, such as this one by the redoubtable Thor Iverson , or this one by the outspoken Cory Cartwright

You see, there's that little problem I alluded to earlier: these new wave bloggers and tweeters? They are fiercely independent sorts. They are extremely individualistic, and often loud and prickly about it. They say exactly what they feel, and their feelings are often passionately opinionated. They are even at times highly knowledgeable in what they're saying.

Now, mind you, they are loving the trip. After all, what's not to love in a free trip to the Piedmont??? And they're meeting some great people, and are quite impressed with the land and the people. But they have some serious doubts about the wine, and they're saying so.

Turns out that much of what's going on with Barbera these days, especially with the producers who want to make Barbera "important"---which means respected, appreciated, and notably more expensive and profitable and in favor with modern consumers---involves adding heft and weight and volume to a normally fairly quiet and likable little variety. Barbera for many years has been, along with Dolcetto, one of the straightforward country wines the locals drink while they gleefully export the "important" high price Barolo and Barberesco to wine aficonados around the world.

And how better to make Barbera "important" than emphasizing and aggrandizing all its elements? Grow the grapes so they are more intense, richer, riper, fuller. Make the wine so you extract the maximum from these richer grapes. Then cater to the custom of the times and put all that wine in brand new oak barrels for longer and longer periods of time.

Then you will have an 'important' wine, you see.

It may not taste like Barbera anymore though. Or, as many of the bloggers are pointing out, it may not taste like anything much at all, except generic, fat, rich, oaky wine. From somewhere, yes, but not necessarily from anywhere in particular.

Turns out maybe it's not the best idea for PR purposes to invite a group of fiercely independent and very mouthy people to come taste your wines and write about them. Could have the same effect of being invited to judge a Most Beautiful Baby contest and telling the proud parents all their babies are undeniably ugly. Ouch!

Now mind you, these bloggers are not finding all the wines terrible---they are simply saying they do not like the direction the producers are going in, for they feel they are not showing the unique properties of Barbera and the Piedmont as they should, and instead making it just another indiscriminate "me too" international style of wine.

And it's all too likely that the more mainstream wine media would find these wines laudable. That's what seems to get the "name" writers excited, at least; so it's possible it would work here.

So who are the poor producers to listen too? These irritating and yappy little people, these ephemeral internet scribes who came out of nowhere, armed only with an opinion and an internet connection; or the mass-market influence-peddlers who with one article, one score, can establish a wine firmly in the pantheon of profound profit?

I have my own opinion on who is more likely "right" in this instance. I also have an opinion about who will more likely be heeded by the producers. And I will keep both opinions to myself.

Take a look. and make up your own mind.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Wine Blog You Should Be Reading

One of the truly great things about the internet---and specifically about wine boards on the internet---is that you have the occasion to "meet" some of the most interesting people in the world.

Every now and then you even meet a person who you just know could be a dear friend if the world were only a bit smaller, or your income were a bit grander.

There are a lot of people out there writing about wine and food and the good life in general. Some of them write with eloquent elegance, some with great precision and finesse, some with folksy charm. Some have fairly complex agendas, or fancy themselves as hard-core journalists or investigative reporters or crusaders who have chosen wine---for some reason---as their target. Some think they are important enough, or should be, that people should take their opinions with great seriousness.

And all that's fine with me. The more voices the better, sez I.

But some people stand out for their pure unalloyed exuberance. Through one of the places I frequent, Robin Garr's venerable Wine Lover's Discussion Group, a subset forum of the Wine Lover's Page, I came to enjoy the occasional postings of Noel Ermitano, a resident of Manila, Phillippines, and gourmet and bon vivant of the first order.

Noel is a forthright blogger who lovingly dictates the pure joy of his meals, his wines, and his social occasions, and he does it in such a way as to share that joy. It's aways a distinct pleasure to read his posts, not least because he is so obviously enjoying himself and just wants to tell someone about it. And he's never pretentious or condescending about it, either.

In addition to the straight up, yet always highly descriptive, prose narration, Noel also has a habit of treating himself and his friends and family to an incredible variety of fantastic wines, spirits, and foods.

And we get to vicariously enjoy this visually as well, because---it turns out---Noel is quite an accomplished photographer in addition to his other skills.

Snifter of XO, anyone?

That's Noel in the top right corner, gazing at a glass of 1953 Chateau Siran. Just another one of the lineup in one of Noel's tastings.

And you never know when the Camus XO or the Domaine Ligier-Belair Vosne-Romanee might get pulled out of a wine bag with a flourish.

Noel also assiduously notates the food and wine pairings through his prose and camera, to the point where you feel as if you were actually there.

And after reading and gazing, you'll certainly wish you had been there.

Infanticide? Yes. But how would you know otherwise???

Whether a five star multiple course wine dinner, or a "simple" Sunday family meal, Noel excels at capturing the scene.

Over the last few months I've been enjoying Noel's posts without fail---and now that I'm frequenting his blogsite as well, I'm enjoying them even more.

This is the kind of guy, I think, that could be a friend. You can tell it in the way he talks about his wines and enjoys his foods, and shares his life with his wide variety of friends, and in the way he involves his family.

He's a gregarious man, Noel, and as intent on having everyone around him enjoy the moment every bit as much as he does.

I like that.

Here's a little sushi from Toki restaurant.

So if you want some joyous reading about awesome wines, incredible foods, and good times in Manila,
check out Noel's blog.

You can find it here:

Or you can go to my sidebar, because it's on my personal go-to set of Links.

One of these days, somehow, I'd like to meet Noel. Because I know it will be a joyous time. And there'll be some righteous wines and delicious foods.

Meanwhile, I'll just faithfully read his blog.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due...And A Thank You!

Just a short note here to say thank you...

Some while ago I wrote a trio of blogposts on one of my favorite things: eau-de-vie fruit brandies.

It was a topic I wrote on enthusiastically, and searched out what I thought were some of the best in category.

One of the items I picked was the Schladerer Kirsch, a superb cherry brandy from the Black Forest of Germany, and a traditional favorite.

It's nice to know, when you're writing a blog, that sometimes people are paying attention!

Shortly after writing this piece, a lovely person from Niche Imports, the folks who import Schladerer and some other great products into the US, sent me a little e-mail thank you. Very nice of them, and her.

Then, to my pleasant surprise, I received a small box with a nice little selection of the Schladerer Liqueur Chocolates! These are pretty common over in Europe; not too often seen here in the US though, more's the pity.

It's not quite the same thing as the great Schladerer Eau-de-Vie, no, but it's pretty damned good---and it's got CHOCOLATE!!!

Quite nice treats actually. Have to exert lots of willpower not to snarf down all them in one sitting. (Can you tell I have poor impulse control where spirits and chocolates are concerned?)

But that's nothing to the moral presssure I have to exert to keep my chocoholic wife from snarfing as well, after her one taste.

There are four flavors...and I can't tell you which one is my favorite. There's the Williams Pear, Mirabelle (Yellow Plum), Himbeergeist (Raspberry), and the Kirsch (Cherry). Mind you, these are liqueurs and not the peerless original eaux-de-vie (which means some sugar is added). And they have some silky, luscious, rich chocolate wrapped around them.

Now a word as to techniques.

First, there's the nipping off one end of the choco, slurping down the liqueur, then chomping the chocolate. Second, you can just gulp down the whole damn thing, crunch through the choco and feel the burst of sweet, intense liqueur fruit flavor. Or you can just pop the little guy into your mouth and let the choco slowly melt until you get to the central core.

Either way you approach it, these are delicious.

So thanks to Niche Imports for the candy....and since I got it after I got the article done praising the Schladerer shamelessly, I feel good about it.

But then I always feel good about choco and liqueur anyway.

Any evidence will soon be gone.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Tequila Chronicles: Seleccion Suprema by Herradura

Let's throw a few words out here.

Revelation. Epiphany. Game Changer.

Or, in the catch phrase from Monty Python that has become reliably standard (no, not the Spanish Inquisition one), "...and now for something completely different!"

We were at Clayton Szczech's great tequila tasting at Cha! This was the final tequila of the night. And fitting that it was. because how could you follow this?

In tequila, first there is Blanco (or Silver, or Plata, or White), then Reposado (rested), then Anejo (aged). And so it was for many years.

Then Casa Herradura came along and changed things. Oh, there had been tequilas around for a long time that had a little extra barrel age on them, that were extra-mellowed, but these weren't usually available outside of the tequila families, or they couldn't be designated differently.

So Herradura went to the authorities and sought a new category, something beyond anejo, something that required a new name because it ushered in a style...something completely different. That was the first "Extra-Anejo"---extra-aged. So a new category was born.

When you progress through the tequila designations, essentially what you are doing is moving from the immediate and fresh---made and bottled quickly---to slightly aged, to long aged. And along the way the essential nature of the tequila is being altered: it's changing from the focus on the purity of what agave brings to the complexities that the wood aging develops in the tequila.

Long aged tequilas, the Extra-Anejos, are expressions of tequila through the prism of age and oak. As such, an amazing transformation happens, and the tequila becomes much more similar to a fine Cognac or long aged Agricole Rum.

The Herradura Seleccion Suprema was the first of the new category of Extra-Anejo recognized by the authorities. It is still, I firmly believe, the best of them. The severe elegance and dignity of the thick walled decanter bottle signals to the eye that, for tequila, this is something completely different. And it is.

With over four years of aging in used barrels, the nature of the agave base is muted here---still present but subdued to almost a background murmur---and this allows the incredible complexities of extended maturation to emerge, the influence of severe diurnal shifts of temperature slowly coaxing the flavors out of the cellular walls of the barrel to diffuse with the tequila. Subtle notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and cardamom and slow-roasted pumpkin waft out of the glass, with even more subtle etherea of chocolate and coffee and whiskey hovering underneath to tease and tantalize.

Some people might say "This isn't Tequila!" and in that they would be right. It isn't tequila, not the tequila of slamming shots and sweet margaritas; not even the tequila of gentle sipping Reposado and measured amounts of forceful Anejo. This is Tequila of the profound sort, a "Grande Fine Champagne" of Tequila, made to grace a snifter and to be cupped in the hands to warm and volatize and savor long into the night.