Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pigskins in Burgundy, or What's a white burgundy worth?

When MFWC saw a Puligny-Montrachet in the bargain bin in September for $20, he fell on it like an NFL special teams player recovering a fumble in a playoff game. One of the most exalted names in the French region of Burgundy, Montrachet is a vineyard with such cachet that several neighboring villages, Puligny among them, have attached its name to their own to increase the marketability of their wines. This P-M was a 2009 Olivier Leflaive that usually retails for $45 to $50. That's modest pricing by the standards of white burgundy, which for centuries has been the world's preeminent white, with prices to match. Winemakers around the world have tried to reach those august levels by planting Chardonnay, the grape from which the best white burgundies are made. (The reds, of course, are of Pinot Noir.) The pricing means that wine drinkers with modest budgets don't drink a lot of good white burgundy, hence MFWC's responding to the P-M as if it were a pigskin. (Pigskins and Burgundy aren't as far apart as you might think; Ma Cuisine in Beaune, a beloved restaurant in the heart of Burgundy, serves a small dish of pork rinds at the beginning of a meal.)

One way around this fiscal dilemma is to drink wines from Chablis, a town in the northernmost parts of Burgundy famous for producing whites often described as "steely," or "austere." In part because most Americans associate Chablis with the bad white wine they drank in the 1970s and 1980s, much of which did not in fact come from Chablis, or even from France, wines from Chablis tend to be underpriced relative to those from elsewhere in Burgundy. That's not true for the product of Raveneau, a Chablis producer championed by Kermit Lynch, who began promoting the wines in the 1970s and is now able to impose such a mark-up when importing them that young vintages often cost more in a New York wine store than they do on some restaurant lists in France. Lynch's praise of the wines in his book sparked something of an obsession in MFWC, who ordered a 2000 Raveneau at a restaurant in Paris a year ago for €130 and quite enjoyed the delicacy of the wine, which smelled and tasted a little of honey but also had a solid backbone of acid.

At home Raveneau is off the table, though tastes of the wines of fellow Chablisiens Olivier et Alive de Moor and Patrick Piuze have lingered in MFWC's mind. The de Moor Aligote, which is delicious with oysters, can be had for under $20, though de Moor's higher-end bottles go for around $40 and Piuze's are a little more - again, cheap for Burgundy, if not for MFWC. Another possibility for those craving relatively affordable Chardonnay is to search out lesser-known blanc de blancs, or sparkling wines made entirely from that grape. After touring the Bekeley wine stores a few weeks ago, MFWC met some friends for dinner in Oakland and enjoyed a bottle of Diebolt Vallois Cramant 2005, a yeasty, creamy wine that went very well with food and can be had for $40 at Sherry-Lehman in New York.

Or you can luck out with a look in the bargain bin. Unable to resist temptation, MFWC opened the '09 Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet on Friday and thought it made for a damn good two hours of drinking after the cat pee aroma burned off within about fifteen minutes of opening. "Cat pee" is probably even more revolting than "barnyard" to any human with a nose, but it does accurately describe the sharp hit of acidity that can come from white burgundy. More pleasant were the fennel, vanilla, cream soda and even faint Coca-Cola (but better) aromas that followed, though the wine's smell often resisted description despite its considerable appeal. This wine would be perfect with roast chicken with rosemary and mashed potatoes with butter and cream, French comfort food at its finest.

So back to the question presented, as they call it in Legal Writing classes. Was the Leflaive worth it? At $20, unquestionably. The normal retain price seems fair to me as well, since the Leflaive seems on the order of Piuze and de Moor and Diebolt if less haunting than the Lopez de Heredia about which I wrote a few months ago, though I'm as deeply in the tank for Heredia as then-Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser was for the 1992 Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. ( But I don't think I got any more enjoyment out of a Raveneau than I did out of the few ounces of a Piuze wine I tasted this summer. Three times as much? Certainly not, though I would certainly love to see how Raveneau goes with the chitlins at Ma Cuisine.               



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Boozing in Berkeley

Berkeley, Ca. is one of the best dining destinations in the U.S. Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse is still going strong more than 40 years after she founded it. Across the street, the Cheese Board offers delicious, freshly made pizza at $2.50 a slice, though only in one variety per day. Near the Cal campus, Ippuku grills every part of its free-range chickens - I found the heart particularly memorable when I ate there last summer - and for the adventurous, or perhaps foolish, offers a raw chicken dish whose surprisingly appealing texture suggests the quality of the birds with which Ippuku is working: And MFWC makes daily pilgrimages to Ici on College Avenue for candied blood orange ice cream and other such frozen delights.

The options for wine buyers are just as good. Berkeley is most famous as the home of Kermit Lynch, who began importing wines from France in the early 1970s as Waters was launching Chez Panisse. Just as Waters led a movement toward a cuisine based on fresh ingredients rather than intricate preparations, Lynch became a leading importer by championing traditional wines made in what he viewed as an authentic way rather than those designed for an American audience that prefers high alcohol and big flavors - in other words, many of the wines made in Napa Valley. (See "One cagey romantic," Oct. 10.)  The Lynch label on the back of a bottle is always a good sign, but his store next to Waters's bakery Cafe Fannie in Berkeley does not offer a lot of choices for budget wine buyers. Lynch focuses almost exclusively on France and Italy, and his reputation is such that he can easily move cases of expensive wine.

The thrifty wine buyer will do better by going to Vintage Berkeley, which has stores on College Ave. across the street from Ici (they let you bring ice cream into the shop) and on Vine St., around the corner from Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board. VB focusses on wines between $10 and $20 with a few edging over that figure and a small reserve section in their College Ave. store. On the way to meet a group of people who gathered to watch the 49ers game last week (MWFC believes in adapting to the local culture when he travels even though he's rooting for Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, T-Sizzle and the rest of the Ravens to get to Indianapolis), MFWC picked up a 2009 Douro Twisted for $16.50 made by Niepoort, the Portuguese winemakers most famous for their ports. ( It turns out that Niepoort makes a number of other wines, including the Twisted, a robust red that smells of barnyard, tobacco and chocolate with a little fruit and is made from the same varietals that go into port. It's tasty stuff that gives the drinker a sense of the flavors that go into port without clubbing him over the head.

MFWC went back the next day to pick up a few more bottles, including the Occhipinti SP68 2009 white for $22. The wine is a blend of Albanello, a centuries-old Sicilian grape used primarily for blending and almost never encountered in the U.S., and zibibbo, a local name for Muscat that dervies from the Arabic zabib, "dried grape" and is also used to make a wine similar to Marsala in which the grapes are dried and then pressed. Sadly, MFWC came down with a stomach bug that prevented him from sampling the Occhipinti, though the description on the Prune website is appealing:

After picking up the Douro Twisted, MFWC headed to Paul Marcus Wines (no relation to the blogger). PMW is in a small marketplace across the street from the Rockridge BART and ranges broadly in geography and price. Here wine geeks will find Lopez de Heredia, Occhipinti, Jura wines, and rieslings; casual buyers will have a reasonable selection of affordable wines; and the cellaring classes can ask about a reserve list that has some remarkable values from both California and Europe.   

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Occhipinti, part II, and quaffing Malbec in the Bronx

The 2009 SP68 Occhipinti Frappato/Nero d’Avola entranced me from the first sip I took at a late lunch on a Friday afternoon at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I bought it for 2B Sales in September, for 1B Sales last month (1B sits next to 2B and orders a bottle at a time), and for a new club member this past week, a gregarious security guard at the front desk of my building who has relatives in Marsala, Sicily and whose sister owns a house there.
My enthusiasm extended to wines from COS (the O is for Arianna Occhipinti’s uncle Guisto – the only firm basis for my interest), a producer based in Vittoria, a town near the southeast corner of Sicily. 1B Sales liked the SP68, and this week I picked her up a COS 2010 Frappato/Nero d’Avola blend aged in clay anphorae, the vessels in which wine was stored and transported in the ancient Mediterranean. A few other Sicilian producers use amphorae, is reputedly a little nervier and edgier than wines aged in oak. COS may feel more comfortable with the material because it ferments and ages its other wines in concrete rather than oak. (
I cracked open Occhipinti’s 2008 Frappato last night with the MOME, who said he needed a few drinks to get him through a late shift at the Park Slope Food Coop, a relic of the neighborhood’s hippie past. Frappato gets little respect; the Oxford Companion to Wine gives it four lines in which the book dismisses it as a blending grape that should add “fruit and freshness to the more powerful Nero d’Avola.” 
Occhipinti did a lot better than that. The first glass of her 2008 Frappato smelled and tasted of tannins and spice in a balanced, very attractive way, and twenty minutes in the refrigerator brought out some cherry, which was also controlled. The store recommended serving this with cured ventresca, or tuna belly, which sadly was not to be found in Park Slope, but pizza and some Middle Eastern vegetarian food with a little chili pepper worked well. This wine like the 2009 SP68 left an impression of freshness and liveliness.  
Johnny Bronx isn’t about to put tuna guts into his belly. He likes a good steak grilled rare and a robust red wine to match. JB also wants that robust red to be affordable, which means he likes Malbecs from Argentina. He purchased a few of them in December and wanted two more this week, but the store was out, and MFWC returned with another affordable Malbec, the 2009 Terra Rosa.
Malbec is a French grape that may be used in red Bordeaux along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. But it fell out of favor in Bordeaux, where plantings fell by 70% between 1970 and 2000. It’s still predominant in Cahors, a town about 150 miles east of Bordeaux, but it’s now most closely associated in the American wine drinker’s mind with Argentina, where it’s become the dominant red grape and one commonly used in single-varietal wines. Another erstwhile MFWC member was quite fond of Cuma’s $12 Malbec. Judging by the Wine Library website (WL is the largest wine story in the country), it’s hard to spend more than $30 on an Argentine Malbec, which is just fine with Johnny Bronx.