Friday, December 26, 2008

A New England Christmas

Christmas Dinner 2008, Hank Mann in the Traditional Role of the Lamb Santa

Hank Mann is a great chef. The food he has served me in his home is simply some of the best food I have ever eaten. Hank has served me the best mussel I've ever eaten, the best shrimp, the best artichoke, the best paella, the best curry, the best bouillabaisse, and just this thanksgiving, the best turkey I've ever eaten. He and his wife Carol were kind enough to extend an invitation for Christmas dinner this year, there is no where I would rather be, and no one I would rather dine with, so I gladly accepted.

Dinner at the Mann's can be an epic experience, not only for the quality of the food and wine, but for the sheer scale of the evening. Hank routinely cooks for over twenty people, and often serves meals of six, seven, eight courses. It is not uncommon to arrive for dinner at 2pm and eat and drink for eight hours until you simply have to leave and go lie down. Once, he hosted a 2005 Spatlese Riesling tasting, we lined the wines up on a small antique drop leaf table, there were so many wines that the table gave way, sending wine to the floor. We lost a dozen or so bottles, still I counted forty-six wines that we tasted through over a four hour period. Then we had dinner, with a whole new set of wines.

I've had 1982 Ch. Latour at his house, and 1970 Ch. Gruaud Larose and 1975 Ch. Pichon Lalande. I've had 1990 Ch. Rayas at his house and consumed so much 1978 Ch. Beaucastel that I smelled like Mourvedre for a week. Once when I mentioned to his friend Ken that I had never had a Trockenbeerenauslese before, Ken produced from his bag two bottles from two different vineyards and we drank them standing in the kitchen talking about drainage in the vineyards of the Great Ramp in the Mosel.

Hank and Carol live deep in the woods of Stonington on an old homestead that was first settled in the 1600's. The original house was lost to fire and replaced by the current home built in 1777. There are still ruins and outbuildings that provide insight into Colonial life in the woods of Connecticut. They have an earthen ice house with a stone roof by the pond, and a spring house, and an old barn with a flat rock foundation with no mortar, there is even a family cemetery on the hill. The house itself has wide board floors, exposed hand hewn beams and a wide shallow fireplace with a deep granite hearth. In short, a perfect place for Christmas.

I arrived at two o'clock with a bag of goodies and had the singular treat of cooking with Dr. Mann. We began with a plate of Sliced smoked duck breast, Pate de Foie Gras with 2% truffle, and a very ripe Epoisses. I opened a bottle of Domaine Dujac Chambolle-Musigny, and I was like a kid at Christmas. I had been holding on to that bottle of Dujac for over a year, with very high expectations. It has a magnificent reputation and an unfortunate price. The wine did not disappoint, It was dark red with black undertones, fully opaque, with raspberry and brambles, fine strong tannins well integrated into the fruit with a touch of iron. The wine paired perfectly with the stinky Epoisses, also from the Cote d'Or, and the earthy, loamy Foie with truffles and smoked duck.

As we ate and drank, we prepared the next course, duck confit. We unwrapped the duck legs and trimmed the excess fat to expose the meat. We boiled the potatoes for three minutes, then tossed them with butter and salt. We placed the confit in the center of a wide shallow pan, surrounded them with the potatoes, added in the trimmed duck fat and dusted the potaoes with rosemary. Then into the oven at 425 for 35 minutes. As the duck legs cook the fat is rendered out providing a fantastic medium for the potatoes to cook and crisp and brown.

While that cooked, Hank had me try some of the curry he had made the night before. "The trick is to add the chicken late so that it doesn't overcook, it stays moist and keeps it's texture that way, and here try this". He added a dollop of ginger pickle and lime pickle paste. In twenty years of eating curry this was the best I've ever had.

After the taste of lime pickle had subsided, we pulled the cork on a bottle of 2005 Ch La Vielle Cure and prepped the lamb. With a nice hard wood fire going in the fireplace in the dining room, we set up a grilling rack and placed the lamb loin over the open flame and glowing coals and sat at the dinner table drinking wine and watching lamb roast.

I opened a bottle of 1983 Hermitage La Chapelle and decanted it. I have had this wine many times, and at twenty-five years old it still seemed a little young. Thankfully, both the duck confit and the lamb provided just the thing, the perfect key to unlock the wine and allow it to express itself, fat. Gamey, dark fat.

Carol set the table with her grandparents 19th Century china, beautiful stuff signed by hand on the underside. I have always loved good china, it makes for a beautiful canvass for the artistry of great food. It was a small gathering on this night, Hank, Carol, their son Tommy and their daughter Melanie, and myself. It was a very happy day in my life. We sat and ate like a family, like I was part of the family.

For dessert Carol brought out a cheese cake with a raspberry orange sauce. We opened a bottle of 2001 Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive Grains Noble, that at first glance seemed a little shy on the acidity, but with the tart raspberry sauce, it was perfect, perfect.

This was the quaint New England Christmas you see in the movies, it was Norman Rockwell with cool people. It was the Christmas I have always wanted, it was the Christmas I finally got.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In Defense of Champagne during a Recession

Link to a New York Times Article sent to me this morning by a local banker

My response

My problem with the New York Times article is that the Times assumes that it should champion less expensive products during a market downturn, and that simultaneously, a luxury niche will be opened up to a larger demographic. This is true. They are bemused by this little irony, and very pleased with themselves. How clever.
But they are fools, simply because they are treating artistry as mere fodder for commerce. They are gauging the market, and analyzing seemingly appropriate consumer solutions, quite astute I'm sure. But they don't love, they don't drink with their heart. I fear that those who read them will similarly drink with their head and not their soul. For me, the opportunity to touch greatness is priceless. Or I should say, reasonably priced at about $50 a bottle.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

How I met Raimund Prum

Pouring for Raimund Prum at a vertical tasting of six vintages of his Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese at Brie & Bleu

One year it snowed heavily the day of the Mohegan Sun winefest. At the time I drove a 1987 Ford Ranger that had already been hit once so I figured, what's the worst that can happen? I drove down to the old Sub Cafe on Bank street and picked up some nice heavy pieces of rubble from around back. I had about 800lbs of cement block and yankee granite in the back of that truck as we crept up 395 on our way to the Sun. I had Ryan Connelly with me. He was front of the house at Brie & Bleu at the time and I had gotten free tickets to the show through the wine shop. We had low expectations about the wine we would see, but we had the will to live and hoped to do the type of drinking associated with the words open and bar.

The Mohegan Sun Ballroom is as unpleasant a place to taste wine as I can imagine. Bright light, synthetic carpet, fat Americans milling around embarrassing themselves. Only this time, there was no one there because of the snow. A show ready for 5000 had maybe 500 people. I was set upon immediately by salespeople, sales managers, brand managers, key account managers, and various others attempting to ply their trade, the poor bastards. I was dragged through several "important brands" and through two dozen $100 Cabs until they all tasted the same. My tongue now burnt, I excused myself

Then I saw Raimund, all 6'4'' of him with bright red hair. So I stumbled up to him and said "I've never liked Riesling, I know I should, I've just never gotten it. You are supposed to be one of the great winemakers of the Mosel, impress me with your wine." And he did. He walked me through QBA, Kabinett, Spatlese, and Auslese. He told me about the steep vineyards of schist, the hand harvesting, about the purity and clarity, the tension and transparent nature of The Queen Of White Grapes.

Then I looked at him and asked a question I'd been asking all day with disappointing results."Do you have anything under the table?" If you go to a wine show, any wine show, this is not a bad question to ask. Invariably there are people there who have brought wines to show their best clients, the press, each other, whoever, but not you. Now, you can ask to see this wine, but you can't flinch. You have to look them right in the eye and ask with the gravity of someone who can put money in their hands.

Raimund bent down and pulled out a 375ml bottle of 1998 Graacher Himmelreich Ice wine. His corporate lackey handler Max gave a little twitch and started to sweat as Raimund poured. At the time this was the greatest wine I had ever had, and I'm not sure it still isn't. Produced from grapes frozen in a quick hard frost, and harvested from a vineyard of steep slate, by hand, and crushed while the water is still trapped in ice crystals at -5C, it was a wine of vast depth, with penetrating acidity, concentrated fruit and intense minerality. I polished off the pint, (I can be very persuasive in situations like this), then I politely asked how much something like that cost, as I would be interested in buying some for the store.

"It's expensive" says Max
"How expensive" says I
"$355 for 375ml" says Max
"I'll take six" says I
"I don't know if we have six" says Max
"Find Six" says I

I thanked Raimund for his time and told him if he was ever in New London to call me. "We can do an event at the bistro, we can do for the public what you just did for me, we can make them understand. I mean look around you, we are swimming in a sea of liquid shit, it's only redeeming quality is it contains alcohol." Raimund thanked me for my enthusiasm, and was polite as I excused myself as only a German can be polite when the person he is speaking with is making little sense.

I moved on and looked for Ryan, who had been very busy. In my absence he had procured a Trade Laminate that gave him full access to the show, but more importantly the ability to lift as much wine as he could carry without so much as raising an eyebrow. After scouring the show, he had compiled a few cases of expensive wine that he intended to walk out with. There were four cases, too much to carry alone, so I was recruited into a life of crime once again. We loaded up and walked out like we owned the place.

The Mohegan Sun is one of the biggest Casinos in the world. That is to say it was a long walk to the car, a long walk drunk over busy carpets and through ringing bells and flashing lights. I don't remember what happened next but I remember we were running and I was very aware of the cameras. And then Ryan fell, hard. And wine hit the floor, hard. I remember standing over him face down on the floor, 24 bottles of wine splayed out in front of him. I paused just a second, and then decided this was one of those times when you just keep moving.

So I did, and I found my truck, loaded with cement as it was, and put the two cases in the cab. Then I realized that I didn't even want this wine. Stealing bad! What would Buddha do? I had to get rid of it! So I started making phone calls, drunk phone calls. "Hey do you want any wine, I got a couple of cases of wine and I have to get rid of them right now or I might have bad Karma." I reached Kat Murphy and she agreed to help by drinking what she could. So I piloted my truck downtown, and rang the bell at the Hygenic Art Co-op. Kat answered, I went up, Greg Bowerman joined us and that is all I remember from that night.

In the morning I went to work on my day off just to drop off business cards I had collected and make brief notes on wines I had tasted the day before. The phone rang and I answered It. A strange man with a strange voice said things I didn't understand. Then he just kept repeating "It's me, It's Raimund!"

"Hey man,thanks for the wine yesterday.Where are you calling from?"
"I'm In New London!"
"I'm at the train station I'm going to New York, can I come by and see the store?"
"Yeah, man I'll be right there"

So I went down and picked him up, in my truck full of rubble, and brought him to the store, which he loved. The next time he was in the States we did a massive vertical Spatlese tasting from Wehlener Sonnenuhr for about twenty customers. I came to understand and love Riesling all the more. It is the perfect lens by which to examine terroir, each vintage original and unique. When he saw the Ice wine on our shelf he picked it up and said reverentially, "This wine will last one hundred years, maybe more"

That is how I met Raimund Prum

Ryan Connelly turned up two days later. He had lost his wallet, his keys, his glasses and his shoes. He had come to on a bench in a hallway at the casino not remembering how he got there or why.

For photos of Wehlener Sonnenuhr click on Riesling tag or see a Quick Defense of Riesling

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Grower Champagne Tasting

Your humble narrator labors long into the night, a pen in one hand, a glass in the other

Several years ago Dave and I were invited to a Champagne tasting at Fat Cat's in Norwalk. There were five of us, we ate pizza, talked politics, and drank Grower Champagne for four hours. It was one of the best tastings I have ever attended, a very simple, straightforward and thorough examination of wine.

For most wine drinkers, Champagne escapes attention and scrutiny. It is typically served ice cold, consumed quickly after a toast, or promptly at midnight. The big marque houses and their ubiquitous labels dominate the market, while their house style obscures the vast complexity of great Terroir.

After the Norwalk tasting (as it's come to be known), I turned my back on all major brands of Champagne, because they were quite simply that, brands. We carry no Veuve, Moet, Dom, Cristal, Bollinger or even Krug at the wine shop where I am the buyer. (Yes, I know Krug is great wine, we all love Krug, have you seen the prices recently?)

We put our queer shoulder to the wheel and did the hard and thankless, yet noble task of disabusing the American public of their love of Orange labels and misinformed notions of what constitutes quality and what justifies price. We set out to apply the same passion and critical eye to Champagne as we had to the rest of the wine producing world.

Quite simply put, the Champagne we sell is wine made in France by farmers. In that respect it is much like the Burgundy we sell, and the Sancerre and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is different in character, but not different in nature, to the Rioja we sell, and the Barolo. It is artisanal wine that can be tied to a piece of land. It is wine made by a man or woman with whom you can speak or dine, or even thank.

In an effort spread the enthusiasm, and keep our Champagne Kung Fu the best, we hold a Champagne and Pizza event once or twice a year. The following are my notes from this year's two events, seven Grower Champagnes tasted twice under the same conditions within thirty days. In each of the two tastings the wines were pulled off the ice and allowed to gradually come up to room temperature. All wines were served in Bordeaux glasses to maximize aromatics and aeration. Finally, each wine was tasted after it had gone flat, three hours after being opened. In doing so, we were able to track the full arc of the wine and participate in the very long process of it's complete and full expression.

A. Margaine Cuvee Traditionelle $48
6.5 hectares in Villers-Marmery, Planted to 10% Pinot Noir, 90% Chardonnay
entire estate production 4600 cases

Opulent fruit and very aromatic with a touch of salt. Old fashioned in a good way, in a White Star Ocean Liner sort of way. On the palate, lemon pith, with a little bitterness to balance candied orange peel. The salt is now firmly brine, as in sea spray, in my mind, giving way to a long finish of lemon fruit, the pith is gone yet the pithiness remains. I time the finish with my watch, one and a half minutes

Pierre Peters Cuvee Reserve $55
17.5 hectares in Le-Mesnil-Sur-Oger, Planted to 100% Chardonnay
entire estate production 13,300 cases

FINE wine in the truest sense of the term. Very focused and precise, yet grand and sweeping. A Chalk minerality that is very Cote d'Or, Like Grand Cru Burgundy with bubbles. It brushes aside the the A. Margaine which by comparison seems quaint, like an English uncle in tweed, while the Pierre Peters is urbane and wicked suave.

Marc Hebrart Cuvee de Reserve $50
12.5 hectares in Mareuil-Sur_Ay, Planted to 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay
entire estate production 5800 cases

The Cuvee de Reserve is 80% Pinot Noir and it shows, lots of blue fruit even black fruit. Power and muscularity with great poise. I flash on David in classic repose, strong and balanced, not overly dramatic but symphonic. The Champagne is enhancing the pepperoni on the pizza, creating a very intense tactile interplay between food and wine. The finish is insane, timed at three minutes, no really.

Vilmart Grand Cellier $75
11 hectares in Rilly-La-Montagne, Planted to 60% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir, 4% Pinot Meunier
entire estate production 8750 cases
organic producer

The best example ever of the presence and use of oak. The still wine spends ten months in cask, but the oak is like dark matter, you know it's there but you can't see it. The oak bumps up the texture of the wine and supports the fruit, but it is totally absent in the conventional California Chardonnay-esque way. Very fine gunflint minerality, with salt and egg yolk. This is really good wine.

Pierre Peters Cuvee Especial 1999 in Magnum $175
17.5 hectares in Le-Mesnil-Sur-Oger, Planted to 100% Chardonnay
entire estate production 13,300 cases

Brioche and Minerality on the nose, Yeast and stone. Reminds me of young 2002 Corton Charlemagne without the weight. Very tightly knit. This is a mature but vigorous wine like a 1968 Steve McQueen, the flavors are pronounced yet extremely well integrated. A block of iron with sherry lemon oil.
one hour later brioche has blown off leaving pure apple and lime zest, classic Champagne fruit components, reminds me of the 1988 Lanson Noble Cuvee I used to drink with such great abandon.

Aubry Rose Brut $54
17 hectares in Louy-Les-Reims, Planted to 30% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay.
entire estate production 11,700 cases

Fat strawberry, fairly simple and somewhat clumsy. It is hard for me to rectify this wine with the 1999 or 2000 Aubry de Humbert which is one of the finest wines in the world to my palate. This is odd, not bad, but odd. Two dimensional, without great depth, There is no wizard behind the curtain.

H. Billiot Rose Brut $65
5 hectares in Ambonnay, Planted to 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay
entire estate production 3750 cases

Ohhh... Much more complex than the Aubry. Brioche on the nose giving way to Red Apple skins. The fruit is Strawberry balanced with bitters, as in Strawberry Rhubarb pie, AND I LOVE PIE! Much longer finish, finer wine in all respects.
After an hour or so of chasing this wine around the glass, I start to imagine stuff like, do I smell fennel? Best of night? Maybe. Magnificent wine definitely. Even warm and flat, this is a wine of limpid joy, clear flavors well pronounced and expressed

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