Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Mikulski in Burgundy - and it ain't Barbara on vacation

The Guelbenzu 2006 Evo was one of the fall's great successes. Mr. Marathon wanted a high-end California cabernet sauvignon taste at a modest price, a balance quite ably struck by the Guelbenzu, a blend of 70% cab, 15% Merlot and 15% Tempranillo from Ribera del Queiles, which is near Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. The chief liked the wine so much that he ordered several bottles when he heard that the store had reduced the price to $20 a bottle.

I ran into another Guelbenzu on Monday when I was wandering the shelves at Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore in search of a red to accompany some prime rib left over from Christmas. Lying in the Spanish section was the Guelbenzu Vierlas 2007, a blend of 70% syrah, 20% merlot, and 10% graciano, a blending grape grown in northern Spain, the south of France, Australia and California. Aged in oak for six months, this was a very respectable Rhone-style syrah for $16, with the requisite spice and pepper and a little barnyard to keep you honest. MFWC's mother - Madame Chardonnay du Chene - shies away from reds, but she had no problem downing half a bottle of this one and reported no headache the next morning. 

MFWC also couldn't resist a 2009 white burgundy from Francois Mikulski. Presumably, Francois is not closely related to Barbara Mikulski, the longtime Congresswoman and U.S. Senator from Baltimore whose classic Crabtown accent and brawler's attitude are legendary. Francois will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Meursault winerey in 2012. His father fled Poland in 1939, joined the British army, and eventually married a French woman who gave birth to Francois in Dijon in 1963. Francois's uncle, a Meursault winemaker, introduced him to the craft, and after a stint in California the nephew came home, where he has become a highly respected producer of whites:

One of the staffers at Wells said the Mikulski entry-level white burgundy was tasty and classic if a tad overpriced at $25, and he was right. It had oak, a touch of honey, a touch of citrus and would work with traditional Maryland seafood about as well as a bottle of Natty Boh. (Not crabcakes with too much Old Bay, though.) You East Village people can try the Mikulski out for $11 a glass at Prune, whose very solid wine blog praised the wine a few weeks ago:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday shopping

Pernil. Feste dei sette pesci. Latkes with applesauce. The winter holidays are inseparable from the foods with which people celebrate them, and MFWC received a number of requests last week for wines to pair with specific celebratory dishes.

MFWC has a weakness for the pernil with rice and beans at Sophie's, a Cuban place around the corner from the office, and he could scarcely refrain from inviting himself for Christmas Eve lunch when a colleague mentioned that she needed a $15 red to go with her grandmother's pernil, pork slow roasted with garlic, pepper, oregano and salt. That called for the Bernabeleva 2010 grenache (or, to use the Spanish, garancha), that Big Green had last week with his Korean barbeque. Big Green recommended letting the wine breathe for a half-hour to let the alcohol settle down. A zinfandel would also work, and those who prefer less fruit might opt for a wine like the red from the south of France that MFWC spied in a Paris wine store, the L'Engoulevent of Yannick Pelletier, a blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Cinsault. Crush Wines on 59th St. recommended the '06 a few years ago to pair with the insanely good squab served over rice flavored with squab liver and sofrito that Wes Genovart served at Degustation on the Lower East Side. Wes opened up his own place in Vermont earlier this year, and MFWC needs to head up there in 2012.         

The feste dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, is a southern Italian and Sicilian Christmas Eve tradition that includes some combination of baccala or dried salt cod, mussels, clams, eel, sardines, squid and octopus. One MFWC member - call him Dr. Database - opted for the Ambra Blanco 2010 from Ischia, an island off of Naples. MFWC usually fills requests for pinot grigio with the Ambra Blanco, a blend of Biancolella, a white grape from Campania, and Forastera, which comes from the Canary Islands and was once used to make fortified wines including sherry. Another member lamented his uncles' inability to plan a menu for the sette pesci, a sentiment MFWC shared because of the opportunity for interesting pairings the meal offers. There's the realm of Sicilian whites, of course, and the Forastera points more adventurous drinkers toward sherry. Maybe 2G Sales will try Arianna Occhipinti's whites to see if they're up to the task, since 2G Sales so enjoyed the Occhipinti SP68 Nero d'Avola/Frappato blend. Why not start with some Txakoli, the sparkling white served with mussels, fried octopus and patatas bravas at tapas bars all over Basque country? Clearly, further research on the sette pesci will be required.

The son of an Alabama graduate who sits next to MFWC - call him Bama - couldn't bring himself to serve a dry German with latkes and applesauce at Passover, so he too went for the Ambra Bianco given his wife's preference for pinot grigio. The Bamas welcomed a new baby boy into the family last month, an occasion they marked with a prosecco that would also have gone with the latkes, or they could have lived it up with the Francois Pinon sparkling Vouvray that MWFC discussed in September. Maybe 'Bama can buy a bottle in anticipation of the BCS championship game on Jan. 9, when the Crimson Tide plays LSU.         

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The world's greatest griller

One of my friends - call him the man of many employers (MOME) - likes to conclude a dinner prepared on the grill by bisecting some peaches, removing the pits, drizzling honey on them, and putting them on the flames for a few minutes. He removes them when he thinks they're sufficiently soft and warm and serves them two to a bowl with Breyer's vanilla ice cream. It's not a bad use of a peach from Key Foods, assuming you can find one softer than a lacrosse ball.

Now imagine MOME went to a farm in upstate New York to pick peaches that were at the ideal state of ripeness for grilling. MOME seasons the fruit not by squeezing honey out of the clear plastic container that's been in his kitchen for a year but by searching out the perfect honey, stuff produced by obsessive beekeepers who make sure their swarms pollinate plants that will impart some delicate flavor to the honey. MOME removes the skin from the peaches and grills them for a precise amount of time not over Kingsford charcoal ignited with lighter fluid but over charcoal he's made himself. MOME serves these delicacies with ice cream that has a slight hint of the grill because that's where he's heated the custard before freezing it. No pretension would be added in transformation; the plating of the dessert would be similar in both cases.

Imagine all this, then put MOME in a tiny village in the Basque mountains, and you'd have Extebarri, where Victor Arguinzoniz is such a master of the grill that chefs come from all over the world to eat his food and send their proteges to learn from him. His red mullet was perfect, the skin crisp and with just a touch of char and the flesh moist and delicious. I would say the same thing about his t-bone steak, but I have no recollection of how it tasted. I was full enough when the steak arrived toward the end of a tasting menu last month that I offered half of it to the table next to me. Thanks, they said, but we've already ordered one. I figured I could work my way through a few of the twelve pieces into which the kitchen had sliced the meat, but I didn't even want a glass of red wine to accompany the piece de resistance of the meal. Perhaps five minutes later the steak was gone and my appetite miraculously restored.

But the greatest marvel of the meal came earlier.  Two langoustines cooked modestly with no discernible salt or taste of the grill, just a perfect balance of sweet and rich that demanded a return trip.    

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A fresh palate

When M was in college, many years before the FWC, he stumbled his way into writing a long paper about early Shang dynasty landscape scrolls. M presented himself to Wen Fong, a special curator of the Chinese collections at the Metropolitan and a professor at M's college, and Fong gave him a list of books to read before heading to the Met on a Monday afternoon to join Fong's graduate seminar in the museum's Asian art hold room. Fong lectured on one side of a table on which he unrolled painted scrolls that stretched on for yards and yards but were meant to be viewed only a foot or two at t atime. As the students were marveling at the gorgeous, millennium-old works, Fong asked M what he thought of the paintings. M with his respect for academic authority did a double-take. Fong told the Met how it should spend Brooke Astor's money; M had only the haziest understanding of Chinese art and culture. But Fong advocated for the value of a "fresh eye," one unfettered by years of study that have conditioned it to see a painting in certain ways. (Thomas Hoving makes a similar point in John McPhee's essay "A Roomful of Hovings.")

MFWC thought of Fong's fresh eye in reviewing the purchases of the last few weeks. The boss bought two more Cabernet Francs from the Loire, the Olga Raffault 2005 Chinon Les Picasses and the 2009 Breton Nuits d'Ivresse from Bourgueil. 2B Sales bought a Bucklin Cabernet Sauvignon for the chief, a big fan of cabs. The coffee connoisseur treated himself to another 2007 Pedrolonga. You get the picture. Sure, I pulled out the Oxford Companion to Wine and learned that reds from Bourgueil generally have "a more powerful aroma and slightly more noticeable tannins" than those from Chinon, but that's pretty interstitial data, helpful though it may be for relating to the boss. There was a Broadside Cab for PG Branch and another one for Johnny Bronx, who was gifting it to the woman who makes his sandwiches every day at Potbelly. (JB has street smarts, no doubt.)

A second look revealed more interesting material in members' exposure to new wines - fresh palates, as Fong might say. Last week, a new MFWC member, call her TBNL, (for to be named later) wanted a bottle of the Coenobium, an Italian white that was all the rage in the office last month. One of MFWC's friends, HF (hedge fund) said the Coenobium reminded him of a Belgian beer without the sweetness. TBNL loves beer. Did she have the same response? Why would the tastes be similar? Would all whites wines whose maceration includes some contact with skins have that quality? Or is HF delusional?

Big Green wanted something to go with Korean barbecue and Brussels sprouts, and the salesperson suggested the Bernabeleva Grenache from the region near Madrid that Mr. Marathon liked. I assumed the BBQ was more spicy than sweet, but Big Green told me when I gave him the bottle that the opposite was true. He said he could kick up the spice; I wondered if a cab franc with some acidity or a fresh Beaujolais might have been a better bet for the sweeter BBQ. Big Green is on a BBQ roll, so perhaps we'll get an answer. The Coffee Connoisseur tried and liked one of the Boss's cab francs, a possible gateway wine to the Rauffault or, more generally, lighter reds than those CC has preferred up to now. At the very least, CC has another reference point as he tastes the heavier reds he likes. His palate, his perspective, will be just a little fresher.   



Monday, December 12, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja II, or Bargain-hunting on the Ebro

Los Agostinos is, as the name suggests, in a former Augustinian convent, and it's a bargain. Hotel rooms in Beaune can run well into the hundreds of euro; the most expensive room at Los Agostinos, which is probably the best hotel in Haro, is €116. The hotel restaurant, Las Duelas, is just as affordable. Its €20 lunch menu was a steal, with a delicious filet mignon-like piece of Galician beef following a tapas-size portion of Waldorf salad (you use good apples and walnuts, you get a good salad) and a cod croqueta that was easily the best of the trip.

Lunch came with a carafe of the house red, but I also perused the list, which featured even lower mark-ups than the one at Echaurren. With the exception of a bottle from Lopez de Heredia, the whites were young and under €25. The reds, mostly from La Rioja, are split into two categories - the traditional and the more robust, higher-alcohol wines made in the style rewarded by Robert Parker, the American wine critic who's generated immense controversy in the wine world for his effect on the prices of his favorite wines and therefore, on how wine is made around the world.

The sommelier had a very strong preference for the traditional wines of his region. "It's grapes, not gold," he said, shaking his head at a youngish Contador that went for €220, up from €80 after Parker gave it a high score a few years ago. Instead, the somm raved about a Vina Ardanza reserva from the 1990s for about €40 (I did not take detailed notes on years and prices). The somm had a very detailed knowledge of La Rioja wines and also loved, among others, Abel Mendoza's 2010 Malvasia and the 2005 Valenciso reserve. Neither is available in the U.S., as far as I can tell. He brightened when I mentioned the '93 Lopez and mentioned the hint of banana in the wine.

The somm said that those in search of robust Spanish reds should look to Ribera del Duero, whose most famous wine, Vega Sicilia's Unico, commands hundreds of dollars a bottle and has been made since the estate was founded in the 1864. Its intensity is often attributed to the dramatic spread in intra-day temperatures in Ribera del Duero, from the mid-90s Farenheit in the day to the low 40s at night in the summer. Climate may explain more than tradition here; aside from Vega Sicilia, most of the wine industry in Ribera del Duero dates from the early 1980s. But that's another region, another story, another blog post. When I return to Los Agostinos in November, I'll have to try one of the somm's favorite reds with the restaurant's roast pigeon with wild mushrooms.          


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja, Part I

Haro, the capital of the wine-making industry in La Rioja in north-central Spain, does not seem like a place whose residents would be obsessed with fashion. This isn't the California wine country with its Internet billionaires trying to start wineries; nor is it Beaune, the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, which effortlessly oozes a sophisticated if rustic wealth. Haro is a small town in the mountains with a grittiness to it. Its oldest wine producers - Lopez de Heredia, Muga, CVNE (the initial stand for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) - are near the train station even though it's across a tributary of the Ebro from the town because in the 19th century they shipped much of their product to France and wanted to be as close as possible to the railroad. They've never bothered moving.  

Lopez de Heredia's affect furthers this impression of being oblivious, or impervious, to wine world trends. Now in its fifth generation of family ownership, the winery has retained the same methods and packaging for decades. The men who now make the oak barrels in which the wine is aged come from families that have supplied the winery with coopers for several generations. The oak comes as it always has from Kentucky and Missouri. The underground facility in which much of the production takes place was made more than a century ago and still contains no cooling or humidifying equipment; instead, thick layers of mold on the ceiling insure the 75% humidity at which the wines age best. The cellar smells a little like the wines.    

But the guide, an affable woman of about 30, is exceptionally conscious of the effect changing trends have on winemaking. Lopez de Heredia is most famous for its whites (the guide says the 1964 grand reserve is the best she's tasted), and the Habsburgs brought a taste for whites with them when they came to Spain in the 16th century. Into the late 19th century, the Rioja wineries produced mostly whites, which stimulated demand from Alsace when phylloxera devastated the French wine-making industry. Demand from France for red wine helped spur that segment of the La Rioja wine trade.

Tastes continue to change, of course. The guide said that most of her friends prefer beer to wine and wouldn't appreciate a wine like LdH's 1993 grand reserve or its roses, which its makes only in certain years and, sadly, won't be offering for several more years. LdH also faces an international wine market that leans heavily toward robust reads and largely disdains whites, which even respected producers from Bordeaux have a comparatively hard time selling despite the region's prestige and long history of wine-making. Demand for the reds is significantly greater. (Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion are the primary grapes in Bordeaux whites.) But taste is fickle, and LdH intends to keep making its wines the same way it's always done, the guide said. She strongly recommended I have lunch at the restaurant attached to Los Agostinos, the best hotel in Haro, which has a 20€ lunch special and a sommelier with strong opinions about wine.