Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bourbon and Barolo at D.O.C., or When Drinking Patterns Change

It was a dinner celebrating an anniversary and since some of our best dinners had been in Italy we wanted Italian and intimate.

We got both with D.O.C., an intimate (okay, let's just say small.  Really small.  Tiny.  Itsy-bitsy.  We're talking kiosk here) Italian-themed place in NE Portland.

I would imagine in summertime D.O.C. would be a lovely place with its tables spreading across the sidewalk outside on a sleepy little side street.  Fall is another proposition.  D.O.C. is, quite simply, a restaurant in search of space.  It takes 'cozy' to an extreme.

When you walk in, you have to be careful not to slam the door against the two chefs hard at work.  The kitchen is to either side of the door, consisting of two cooking/prep areas separated by a non-slip rug in center.  Once you're safely past the chefs, though, it's a lovely little space in minimal white, snowy white tables and a gorgeous chandelier.  Just too small.

Our table for two ended up being next to the combination linen closet/computer room/cd room and adjacent to the bathroom door.  Wasn't a slam on us as guests though:  all the tables, of necessity, were that way; our's just happened to be closest.

Certainly can't fault the staff either.  They were attentive without hovering (and, trust me, it would be easy to hover in this place), warm and helpful, and knew their menu and wine list inside and out.

I began with a "Milano", one of I think a total of two cocktails offered and essentially a variation on a Manhattan with bourbon, Carpano Antico vermouth, and Fernet Branca.  Pretty tasty; but then I don't know of any Manhattan variation that isn't when it is made with good ingredients and a measured hand.  And this one was. My wife opted for Prosecco, which she pronounced was simply perfect.

For our dinner wine I chose a lovely Marziano Abbona La Pieve Barolo 2005 from the short but well managed list.  It was truly fine throughout the entire meal.  Not a blockbuster by any stretch; this was a subtle, elegant, earthy, mushroomy (good for this meal for sure) and rose petal Barolo, the kind that seduces you with gentle words rather than trying to overpower you.  And we surrendered to it easily.

There's a magic in good Piemontese Barolo, and this one had it; it was capable of providing an excellent companion for the food and reviving fond memories of the region at the same time.  Which was exactly what we had wanted.

The menu gave us two ways to go: either a a la carte or the chef's menu, a selection of five courses chosen by the chef.  Since we prefer making our own selections, especially in a place new to us, we elected for a la carte; the chef's selection was a good deal at $50 per though.

One salad was narrated so well and enthusiastically we decided to sample it.  It was a memorable salad, a combination of perfectly toasted hazelnuts, chunked and sauteed delicata squash, fine sliced apples and a belper knolle cheese from Switzerland.

We then shared a pasta course of gnocchi, lobster mushrooms and ladysmith fondue that was quite a surprise: a 'dry' style gnocchi, heavily sauteed until it was crispy brown, with loads of mushrooms. a light helping of the fondue, and tangy julienned green onions.  Delicious.

For the main course my wife chose a curious veggie pasta dish of lasagna with kale, chanterelle mushrooms, and squash.  The ingredients were perhaps a bit too close to the previous gnocchi course, I think, with the mushroom/greens/squash combination, and the lasagna was startling:  it had been toasted heavily, and was more like a flatbread or toasted crackers than lasagna.  Didn't seem like pasta at all.  The taste was good, mind you; it was simply a disconcerting preparation.  And sadly, it didn't work that well for us.

The sturgeon dish I ordered was a hearty helping of three huge chunks of meaty, tender sturgeon on a bed of radishes and brussel sprouts.  Once again, the saute pans were getting a workout tonight, as both radishes and brussel sprouts were halved and then sauteed heavily cut side down until they were caramelized and crusty brown.  Outside of the heavy-handed saute work, the dish was lovely.

We had not intended to have coffee, but at a table nearby---but that would be any table in D.O.C.---the waitperson took down an sleek double-globed vacuum coffee maker, which had to be designed by an Italian, and went through a ritual more elaborate and mannered than a Japanese tea ceremony.  So we said "What the heck" and went for it.  More elaborate than it was worth, frankly; a basic French Press does the job better and the ceremony is simpler and the results better.  Points for style though.

The final tally on D.O.C.?  I'd be willing to go back...but I'll wait for Summer and one of those outside tables. The place puts out good food with a limited kitchen---more like a trattoria in Italy than a ristorante---and simply needs that extra space.  On the other hand, if you're looking for intimate, that they have.  Plenty of intimate.

Which brings us to the other topic: drinking patterns.  What with the move to Portland and leaving some dear friends behind---who all happened to be devoted to good wine and food and the sharing thereof---we are dining more quietly these days.  Just the two of us, more often than not.  Or with relatives who don't really go for all'fancy stuff.'

Which means we are drinking fewer wines.  Not necessarily less, mind you; just fewer.  Add to that my rekindled fascination with spirits and cocktails (and my pecuniary encouragement of sampling them since I'm now a writer paid to do so), and the pattern at D.O.C. is pretty much the way we drink when we're out these days.

Our drinking en famille hasn't changed much though, so I do still sample around and stay current.  And thank goodness I'm still getting around to all the trade events---sometimes so many that I'm busy every day---so I keep my palate fully primed.

But I sorely miss the days so recent and frequent of dining with small groups of people who enjoy the fine social art of wining and dining, and are able to appreciate and savor superb foods and wines...and most of all, to do so in a spirit of glowing hospitality.

I cherish dining with my wife alone, and I know she does as well.  But I also know that she and I love the meals with friends even more, and we miss those.  I'm sure things will change as we cultivate new we have already begun to do...but we both miss the days when we would have a table groaning with food and wine and surrounded by smiling people and the chatter of good friends.  Those are the best of times.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dimmi Liquore di Milano

There are few, very few, spirits that so perfectly capture the essence of a place as Dimmi Liquore di Milano.
Created by Stefano Turrini and produced by Sperone, Dimmi embodies the nature of northern Italy---specifically Lombardy and Piemonte. 
If you are fortunate enough to have been there, Dimmi takes you back with one sip.  If you are so unfortunate as to have not yet been there, Dimmi will create an instant urge to go and experience that special place.
Unique in aroma and flavor, Dimmi is a delicate combination of wheat spirits with a touch of grappa di Nebbiolo, the noble grape of Barolo and Barbaresco wines of the Piedmont.
The base spirit is then infused once with a family recipe from the 1930s of herbs and bitters, including assenzio gentile (Italian absinthe), liquorice, vanilla, rhubarb, ginseng and bitter orange.
A second floral infusion follows, with delicate peach and apricot blossoms, to add a distinct aromatic signature to the liqueur.
The resulting liqueur is unlike any other you've had, neither as starkly bitter and herbal as Campari, nor as sweet and spicy as Tuaca.
It rests delicately on the tongue and speaks softly in liquid Italian, with the fashionable elegance of a Milanese and the country charm of a Piemontese.
When sipping Dimmi, it's difficult not to picture the Galleria, or to feel the cool Alpine winds blowing down from the north. (It's also difficult to remain objective and not float away on a lyrical cloud when you're sipping Dimmi---it's just that kind of liqueur.)
But the best thing about Dimmi?  Its inherent mixability in the hands of a creative mixologist.  With its particular profile, what Turrini calls the masculinity of the herbal infusion and the femininity of the floral infusion---and yes, Italians do talk that way---the Dimmi inspires mixologists.
Dimmi is Italian for "tell me", because Turrini kept getting questions about his new liqueur from in "tell me what that is...tell me what is in it...tell me how I can get it."  When you taste Dimmi, you'll be saying the same thing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bordeaux Rouge---good wine without breaking the bank? It's possible.

I generally don't flirt with too many red Bordeaux these days.  I don't drink too much Cabernet or Merlot lately; I have quite a few reliable ones still marinating in my cellars; the current style of Bordeaux is not to my liking; most of the modestly priced Bordeaux aren't all that interesting; and I can't afford the Classified Growths as "regular", i.e., regularly drinking without spending my retirement account, wine.

But there are some modest Bordeaux rouge at modest prices.

Here are two I found recently, both coming in around a $12-14 retail price:

Chateau Roustaing Reserve Vielle Vignes, Bordeaux, 2006

Carrying the appellation of Bordeaux, but coming from the Entre-deux-Mers area, this vineyard sits on limestone/clay soil, and combines Cabernet Franc (45%), Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), and Merlot (20%).

It's that upfront, juicy, black tobacco Cabernet Franc that appeals to me, with the (I assume) slightly green and herbaceous Cabernet Sauvignon registering immediately afterwards.  The notes indicate a 'thermovinification/maceration' for a few hours; I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that heated must in maceration pulls out more of those green pepper and green olive Cabernet tones.  In any case, they are not too evident and add some interesting complexity to the wine.

While this isn't an earthshaking wine, and is definitely not in contention for any of the rarefied classifications, it is still a solid, medium-weight, fruit-driven red with moderate tannins.  And for oakophobes, good news:  there is none evident, perhaps because it was aged for only a few months in stainless steel vats.

Chateau de Lugagnac, Bordeaux Superieur, 2006

A straight-up 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this new property (to me) lacks the tang of Cabernet Franc, and has noticeably softer black fruits and less herbaceousness, but is a fine drinking Bordeaux rouge.

Also macerated through 'thermoregulation', similar to the Roustaing, it differs again by having noticeable, but not overwhelming, oak influence from up to 13 months of new and used barrels.

This simply puts the wine more safely into a "traditional" Bordeaux rouge category.  It's still an early-drinking wine though, as I seriously doubt it would have any long aging potential.  But if you're looking for a nice, reliable, consistent Bordeaux rouge that will not drain your pocketbook, this one will that job just fine.

There's Beaujolais---then there's Cru Beaujolais!

It may be a result of the geeky trend towards smaller production/artisanal styled wines.  It may be the resurgence of small "craft" importers searching out and aggressively selling the discovered jewels.  It may be, simply, the maturation of the wine culture in this country (which I'd like to think, but I don't.)

Whatever it is, there seems to be more (and better) Cru Beaujolais wine available than ever before.

Gamay Noir a jus blanc (Black grape; white juice; red wine)

As long as I remember wine aficionados have been trying to explain to people that "Beaujolais is not just Nouveau; and it's not just a once a year fling."  Then it became apparent that further explanation and elucidation had to be made that "Beaujolais isn't just George Duboeuf; and it doesn't all taste like bubblegum."

If you base your understanding of Beaujolais on the oceans of largely indiscriminate swill from the southern flatlands, that which is labeled "Beaujolais AOC", you don't get a very inspiring picture of the region.  It's light, it's simple, it's fruity, and there's little tannin.  And little of anything of interest either, beyond serving as a summertime liquid to sip and forget.

Beaujolais-Villages, more from the central and northerly parts of the region, is a significant step-up in quality and style.  But to get the heart of what this region can do, you have to go to the Cru Beaujolais.

These designated cru, each as distinct as can be, are clustered in the north, usually around the hillier and more forbidding slopes, and usually in small domain plots.  And some of the Cru defy the sometimes candied nature of plonk Beaujolais by producing rich, velvety, deep and dark delights that can achieve both the level and the style of their more famous and respected Burgundy cousins to the North.

Here's evidence:

Jacky Janodet Moulin-au-Vent Domaine Les Fines Graves 2009

Janodet's domaine vineyard in Moulin-a-Vent is largely granite ("les fines graves" speaks to the fine, gravelly soil), situated high on the slope, and the firmly-rooted Gamay vines are more than 50 years old.  Janodet farms to extremely low yields and gets impressive fruit and acid intensity in his wines---and more tannins than you would expect from this region.  The resulting wine is deep and dark and slow to yield up its intrinsic fruit; it needs age and maturation and development to show its nature.

There's none of the strawberry candy and banana stink of the south here: this is that elusive "serious" wine from Beaujolais, the one that can get confused with Burgundy, but isn't.  There's a fine velvety texture, rich black cherry, and a distinct mushroom and wet leaves earthiness to the wine.  There are also hidden depths of complexity that suggest some long cellaring would draw out even more tantalizing aromas and flavors; it would be a shame to drink this wine now, as good as it is, because there is so much more it can---and will---become.  I'd give it at least five years before I considered touching it, if I had my say.

For a domaine wine of this quality, the price is still well within the "easily affordable" range as well.  Affordable enough that you can put some away for a few years and come back and thank me for the great advise on how to spend your money.

Blanc de Blancs Champagne: Duval-Leroy and Henriot Souverain

I will confess here that Blanc de Blancs Champagne is not my favored style.  I usually much prefer the richness  and complexity that Pinot Noir brings to a blend.  There are some all-Chardonnay Champagnes, however, that force me to reevaluate that stance---or at least provide outstanding exceptions to it--- and yesterday I found two of those side by side.

Duval-Leroy Brut Vintage Clos des Bouveries Champagne 2004 is one, a 100% Chardonnay from a plot ideally placed mid-slope overlooking the village of Vertus.  The Chardonnay is partially barrel-fermented for added richness and body, and this provides an intriguing, seductive combination of light, bright citrus and mingled with distinct floral notes---think fresh spring fruit tree blossoms---on an explosive, foamy base.  The tasting was done in regular, rather than flute glasses, and the creamy mousse was quite a pleasant surprise when it hit the palate!

Henriot Souverain 'Pur Chardonnay' Champagne NV, on the other hand, is a precise pointillist version of Blanc de Blancs, primarily from vineyards in the Cote des Blancs, with a brisk crystalline structure and tantalizing aromas and flavors of mint, lemon verbena, and crisp apple, resting on an elegant and creamy base of pinpoint bubbles.  Aged for three to five years, it has a surprising long elegant finish, unusual in a Chardonnay Champagne.  And although a Blanc de Blancs, you can safely pull this one out for your full-flavored foods: bring on the salmon and capers, the foie gras, the lobster rolls, because this Champagne can handle them with grace and style to spare.

And if you ever have the opportunity, visit Reims and take a tour of the magnificent Les Crayeres, Henriot's famous cellars 60 feet underground in the chalk banks of Champagne, originally quarried by the Romans.  It's a lovely and memorable experience.  Make a magnificent day of it by adding the glorious Cathedral and lunching at Boyer's Les Crayeres (a restaurant and luxury hotel, not a cave) that will satisfy all your culinary cravings.

The Henriot Pur Chardonnay also qualifies as something of a bargain---in the grand marque Champagne sense, at least---and is a worthwhile investment for a special holiday gathering.  It makes for wonderful celebration and splendid festivity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mariah Zinfandel Mendocino Ridge 1997: Shame Zin doesn't age, huh?

I was looking for something on a cool, rainy Oregon afternoon to have with a dinner of andouille sausage, baked sweet potato, and fresh local corn on the cob slathered in butter, with a side salad of chopped romaine with sweet yellow cherry tomatoes and balsamic dressing.

Had to be red, but there were still plenty of options because that's mainly what my "cellar" consists of, since I gobble down the whites about as fast as they arrive, and tend to hang on to the reds, usually long past their due dates, "just to see what will happen."

Sometimes, bad things happen and another beyond-its-time goes down the drain.  Sometimes good things happen, and we get our reward here on earth.

Whimsy said, "Try the Mariah....Try the Mariah..." could be tired and dull.

"What the hell?  At least, then you'll know.  And if it is, you'll just be getting rid of another zinfandel that you held on to waaaay too long."

Well, I don't know.  There are others that could be better.

"Ah, could/would/ got nothing to lose and everything to gain:  you have two bottles, so if this one is good, you're a hero.  If not, get it over with now, dude!  And remember, 1) how good 1997 was in general, and 2) How much you've always been impressed with Mariah and how well it tends to hold together.  So gwahn.  You know you want it."

The results:  I'm particularly brilliant at choosing Zinfandels that age well.

Gorgeous wine, and holding very, very well.  Being clinical, I'd say it lost a bit of its youthful vivacity of fruit up front, but traded that in for a deeper, more rounded, more mature and complex berry-ness, dark and rich, with undertones of dark bitter chocolate.

The wood has softened and toned down as well, almost disappearing from threshold consciousness (which, sez I, is as it should be) so the remaining combination is full and rich, almost viscous, on the palate, with an intensely long finish that hangs in there with the loveliest mixture of delicacy and persistence.

Mendocino Ridge---Islands in the Sky, and still the only non-contiguous high altitude AVA in the US---has always posed that particular climatic/variety challenge that attracts the stubborn and determined, and results in a more-or-less European inconsistency of vintages unlike most of the rest of California.

Those grapes, especially in the Mariah Vineyard, are on the top of frickin' mountains, after all, within sight of the Pacific Ocean, and unprotected from those cold and biting ocean winds.  But Mariah is above the fog line---hell, it's mostly above the cloud line too---so it gets the sunlight constantly.  Only it's more luminosity than heat up there, so the grapes grow with lots of light but lots of intense cold too.  The surviving vines---and many of them don't survive---are hardy little critters, and they tend to produce extremely intense and concentrated fruit, but without a lot of overwhelming sugars that the flatland grapes generate.

All Dan Dooley grows at Mariah is Zinfandel, with a little patch of Syrah, and in 1997 his grapes went to the winemakers down at Fetzer; it was a good partnership of an intense grower providing excellent grapes for a single-vintage Zin, with the advantages of the better distribution system that a large company has.

The Mariah 1997 was also excellent with the spicy andouille---even well-aged, there's something lovely in the berry fruit of a big, structured Zin with spicy-hot sausage---and the Dijon mustard that was beside it.  Pretty damned good with the sweet potato too.

I'll be holding on to that last remaining bottle I have.  This one was just fine, and I think the vintage has a little bit more revelation to give.  But not too long.  This was good enough I don't want to take a chance of wasting the final bottle.