Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Beauty of Leftovers

I’ve been tasting and teaching a fair bit lately. No more than usual, but for some reason I realized last night that I’d accumulated more than my typical number of bottles in the kitchen fridge. And most of them, despite the season, were richer reds. Which meant that I had the perfect excuse to grill up some hamburgers (on a stovetop griddle pan, of course: I live in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia, and there are ordinances against setting up a grill outside my building) and drink the remaining bottles with my wife.

It was a great way to start off the week, and definitely took the sting out of a Monday night.

Dinner was nothing fancy—that would defeat the purpose of making burgers—but it was prepared with the wines in mind. The hamburgers, for example, were made with fresh-ground beef that I picked up at Reading Terminal Market, 10 blocks away. And they were topped with a couple of strips of locally produced bacon and stuffed with a little bit of blue cheese. Not enough to dominate the flavor, but just the right amount to lend the meat an added sense of sweetness and funk when the cheese melted from the heat of the cooking. Balsamic caramelized onions provided a sweet bite, a fresh-baked sesame brioche roll a hint of nuttiness, and a rosemary focaccia roll a perfumed herbal quality.

Because the burger itself was already more than a mouthful, I decided to include the tomatoes on the side, as part of a tomato-parsley-and-herbes-de-Provence salad, as opposed to adding yet another layer to an already hefty burger. And instead of fries, I made a quick potato-and-local-string bean salad.

The beauty of a meal like this was the wide range of flavors and textures, which meant that I had all the latitude in the world when it came to the wine pairings.

All of the highlights were wines left over from classes I’ve recently taught at The Wine School of Philadelphia, and included the Bergerie l’Hortus Pic St.-Loup 2006, which picked up the minerality of the beef; the Borsao Garnacha “Tres Picos” 2007, whose ripe berry fruit and well-integrated spice sang with the onions and the herbs; and the Icardi Barbaresco “Montubert” 2004, which, though it would have been better had I added the sautéed mushrooms I was planning on, was still delicious. (Of course it was—it’s Barbaresco!)

The lesson here is simple, and one that I cannot stress enough: Have fun with your food and wine pairings, try combinations you might not have before, and, above all else, enjoy the juice in your glass. Because any time you’re drinking something that brings you pleasure is a cause for celebration, and can make even humble hamburgers memorable.
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Monday, June 29, 2009

A Stunning Austrian Riesling

It’s not often that I have a wine that flat-out stuns me. Most of the wines I taste are very good, and many of them are great, but relatively few make me step back, take a second or third sip, and stand there in awe of the juice in the glass.

The Hirsch Riesling 2007 from the Heiligenstein vineyard, in Austria’s Kamptal DAC, did just that: It made me stand up a bit straighter, shake my head a few times, and go back for a re-assessment of what I had just experienced. It was just that great.

In The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2008/2009, Peter Moser notes that Hirsch’s “Riesling from the desert sandstone in the heart of the Heiligenstein vineyard…excel[s] with exceptional fruit and mineral character.” I experienced that, too, as well as a gorgeous petrol perfume that was accompanied by smoky notes swirling around aromas of summertime stone fruit. On the palate, concentrated, clean, perfectly defined flavors of apricot, peach, nectarine, and what can only be called ‘mineral sweetness’ led to a lingering, stony finish.

I’m often asked what wines I would include in my hypothetical desert-island case, and I always try to avoid providing specific names and vintages. Too much, after all, depends on what I’ve enjoyed lately. But this one is a no-brainer: If I could drink the Hirsch 2007 Riesling Heiligenstein for the rest of my days, I’d be a happy man indeed.

Earlier this month in Austria, during Wine Summit 2009, I had the chance to speak with Johannes Hirsch during a fantastic tasting that focused on “The Diversity of Danube Terroirs,” held at the breathtaking Stift Gottweig in Kremstal. Take a look at the video below to hear what he has to say about his wines.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Muskateller by the Danube

Sometimes, a perfect pairing isn't about wine and food at all, but rather wine and the environment in which you're enjoying it. During my trip to Austria two weeks ago, I experienced one of the best wine-and-environment pairings of my life at Restaurant Jamek in the Wachau.

As you can see in the video below, we enjoyed lunch outside at this absolutely spectacular restaurant. It was one of those picture-postcard springtime days: 75, sunny, and with just the slightest hint of a breeze to carry and mix the aromas of the food on the tables and the flowers surrounding them. This was the perfect place, and the perfect time, to sip such a charming, floral, springlike wine.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rosé Season...At Last!

Summer is finally here, which means one thing: It's time for rosé! Take a look at the video below for my review of the Pietra Santa Rosato 2008.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

A Father's Day Wine

Look at this as a public service announcement. And while I’m sure you’ve been told this time and again, it always bears repeating: Do not age your wines too long.

Sure, there are some bottles that reward patience—later this week I’ll be reporting on a 72-year-old Bordeaux I enjoyed several days ago—but the truth is that all wines, at some point, will eventually fade out and die.

Which is why we should all dedicate at least one night every other month to rummaging through our collections and popping open what needs to be enjoyed in the short-term. This was brought home to me yesterday when, after Father’s Day brunch at my parents’ house, I asked my father if he had anything he could open. He replied that he had a bottle of dry red that I’d brought him back from Portugal in 2007 (the 2001 Companhia Agricola do Sanguinhal Óbidos Quinta das Cerejeiras Reserva) and that he thought might be ready. I wasn’t sure—I was going to hold onto the same bottle in my cellar for another couple of years—but thought it would be a good chance to see where it was in its evolution. This is why it’s a good idea to buy at least two bottles of any wine you’re going to age for any length of time.

It was perfect—a wine at its peak. The tannins were still there, providing all the structure the wine needed, but they’d softened up over the years and taken on an amazingly velvet-like texture. And the flavors and aromas found their center of gravity in the floral-leathery end of the spectrum, though there was still plenty of rich, ripe dark berry fruit to keep it lively. A year ago it still would have had to soften up a bit, and a year from now, while it’ll still be excellent, I fear that much of its fruit will have begun to fall away.

But right now, it seems like it’s as good as it’s going to get. Which is to say really, really—really!—good. Good thing we opened the bottle. Sometimes, like the old TV show, father truly does know best.
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Monumental Grüner Veltliner

One of my other favorite wines of the Wachau is the Grüner Veltliner Kellerberg 2007 from the legendary F.X. Pichler. This gold-colored wine greets you with a sense of warmth and ripeness on the nose and a subtle whiff of petrol, as well as an almost lactic creaminess that’s perfectly balanced with more linear notes. Balance is the key here, and it follows through to a concentrated, toasted-peppercorn-singing mid-palate that just keeps on unfolding like some sort of gorgeous, vinous flower. The dense texture here is nothing short of amazing, and maintains its grip for what seems like forever. It’s fantastic right now, but promises to be even better in 10 to 15 years or more. Yet again, here is a world-renowned Austrian producer that has exceeded even its own lofty reputation. A truly magnificent wine, and a great expression of the Wachau.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Top Austrian Riesling

One of the most extraordinary wines I tasted in Austria—in a trip filled with extraordinary wines—was the Hirtzberger Riesling Singerriedel 2008. The fruit is grown on a steep vineyard in the Wachau town of Spitz, and shows all the characteristics that you would hope to find in great Riesling.

The nose is amazingly complex, with notes of peach, nectarine, tangerine, mineral, mandarin orange peel, honey, and orange blossom. All of this leads to a palate of honey-drizzled oranges that evolve to summer peach, more minerality, and a hint of exotic spice. There’s a gorgeously subtle sense of perfume on the mid-palate that stays on through a finish that lasts for minutes. It’s still young, to be sure—this is a wine that promises 20+ years of evolution—but so perfectly balanced right now, showing such exquisitely calibrated acid, fruit, and mineral, that it is absolutely impossible to resist. My recommendation is to buy several bottles and follow them over the years.

We experienced the Hirtzberger last Saturday morning at a tasting and lecture on "Great Single Vineyards of Wachau" at Domäne Wachau in Dürnstein (more on their wonderful wines in a future blog post), and afterward had the chance to take a short bus ride to Spitz, where we were met by Franz Hirtzberger himself (that's him on the right), who led us on a tour of the Singerriedel vineyard.

Take a look at the video below—it really shows how steep the vineyard is. And though it doesn’t quite convey the thinness of the topsoil and the rockiness of the land itself, it definitely provides a sense of place for the Hirtzberger Singerriedel 2008, one of the best Rieslings I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wines of Austria

I’m back in Philadelphia from the Austrian Wine Marketing Board’s Austrian Wine Summit 2009, and am, to be honest, going to have a very difficult time containing my enthusiasm for the wine, food, and hospitality I experienced there. I’ve hinted at it before, but I’m going to say it plainly: Austria is one of the single most exciting places in the world right now for wine.

From wines you’ve heard of (Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Zweigelt) to ones that are perhaps less familiar (Zierfandler, Muskateller), Austria is simply exploding with fabulous grapes, world-class vineyards, and a range of styles, from white and red to sweet and sparkling, that rivals anywhere on the planet.

Between last Thursday and this past Sunday, I took dozens and dozens of tasting notes and shot several hours of video, so it’s going to take some time to work my way through it all. In the coming days and weeks, however, keep checking back for more from my trip to Austria.

For now, however, I’ll leave you with this video. It was shot immediately following our lecture and tasting last Friday at the Schloss Hof in Weinviertel on the wines of Niederösterreich, or Lower Austria. The Schloss Hof is considered one of the most exquisite Baroque buildings in the world, and at one point was even owned by Empress Maria Theresia. Learning about and tasting the wines of the region in a historically significant and absolutely magnificent palace like this was easily one of the most amazing experiences of my wine life.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Palo Alto Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2008

The minerality of this wine is almost Loire-like—quite an achievement for a New World Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, the subtlety and self-confidence of the Palo Alto are amazing, its nose quietly singing with hints of apricot and fresh-cut grass, the palate buttressed by bright, lingering acidity, super-fresh pineapple, grapefruit and grapefruit-skin oil, and those mineral notes from the nose that return on the elegant finish.

And despite its light body, there is a real sense of density on the mid-palate, a texture that ever so briefly hints at something almost oily. Because of that texture, this is a wine that, while perfect as an aperitif or paired with classic summertime suppers, also rewards a bit of contemplation.

This is yet another stellar offering from Chile, which, for my money, is producing some of the most exciting, affordable whites in the world right now.
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This Time to Austria

I’m off again, this time to Austria on a trip hosted by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Between Wednesday and Sunday of this week, I’ll be attending seminars, tastings, vineyard and winery tours, and restaurants throughout Austria’s major wine regions. And, of course, I’ll be taking both tasting notes and making videos while I’m gone. It should be an amazing experience, and I expect to have some great information to share with you here when I return.

But after all the Internet drama I experienced in France and Scotland a couple of weeks ago—if you missed it, I had to camp out at a McDonald’s one night in Bordeaux and use their Internet connection—I’ll be taking precautions this time.

You’ll notice that most of my blog posts this week will be stamped with the same date—June 8th. That’s because I have already written several of them and saved them onto our system here, with the idea that my wife will simply hit the “Post” button while I’m gone. This way, you’ll still be able to check back throughout the week to get fresh wine news, reviews, and info while I’m in Austria, and I won’t have to go crazy if my hotel rooms don’t have great Internet connections.

Of course, if I do have good Internet, then I will definitely post from Austria. But a backup plan is in place.

Either way, the point is this: Keep checking back this week for updated posts, whether they’re coming from this side of the ocean or the other one. And, upon my return next Monday, start looking for updates and videos from this most recent trip, as well as tasting notes on what I expect will be more Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, Gruner Veltliner, and Riesling than I’ve ever tasted before.

My teeth are turning purple just thinking about it.
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Rosé Uproar

With the warmer weather of the season here, the time has come to start drinking rosé in earnest. Personally, I’m likely to go through my typical two cases over the next couple of months—and that’s just my at-home consumption with friends, family, and on my own.

That’s the way it is with rosé—its fresh fruit, crisp acidity, and supremely easy drinkability make it the perfect wine for the season.

But this year, this summer, this usually unassuming wine is experiencing a bit of the spotlight…and not necessarily in the best way. Much has been made recently about the new proposed European Union regulations that will allow rosé to be made by blending red and white, and the uproar has been loud indeed. It’s even broken out of the traditional wine media and into the pages of major newspapers; the New York Times, for example, ran a column today about it.

It’s not often that the wine world finds itself in such an uproar over production regulations, but this one seems to have struck a nerve. Will this have as big an impact as its protesters fear? How will it all play out?

It’s enough to make me want to drink a glass or two of wine. Rosé, of course.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Vineyard Decisions and Conditions

When most people discuss winemaking, the usual topics of conversation generally come to the fore: What region the grapes are from, whether the juice was fermented in oak or stainless steel, how long it's aged--if at all--in oak barrels, etc. Interestingly enough, though, the conditions of the vineyard in which the grapes were grown is all too rarely addressed. Which is unfortunate, because the astounding range and number of decisions that must be made regarding the vineyard has a huge impact on the final product that ends up in your glass.

Take a look at the video below. I shot it at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Leognan when, walking across the property, I noticed how incredibly different the land was being treated on either side of the gravel walkway I found myself on.

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Wine on Ice!

There's a fantastic column in today's New York Times Food Section. In it, wine writer Eric Asimov says what so many lovers of complex white wine already know: That drinking it too cold is the best way to diminish the amount of pleasure it ultimately delivers.

The opposite side of this coin is serving red wine too warm, which, when temperatures climb high enough, can result in fruit that tastes flat or even cooked. And with high-octane bottlings, it can make the alcohol jump right to the fore and overwhelm everything else. (Ever tried a room-temperature Barossa Shiraz?) Which is why, at home, I taste all of my wines--as long as the situation allows it--right from the cellar at 55 degrees. As often as not, the reds only need a couple of minutes in the glass to come up to the optimal temperature, and the whites, surprisingly enough, are typically ready to go, especially if I'm drinking the white Rhones and Burgundies I love so much.

The point is this: Don't be afraid to experiment with the temperatures at which you serve and enjoy your wine. The only thing you have to gain, after all, is more drinking pleasure. Which is what it's all about anyway.
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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur 2002

So many of the 2002’s that I tasted during my travels in Bordeaux impressed me more than I expected. Indeed, for such an overlooked vintage, these wines are showing remarkably well right now. So are the 2004’s, though most wine people have been coming around on those for about a year now.

But the truth is that there are plenty of excellent bottlings to be had from the 02 vintage, not least of which is the fantastic Chateau Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol.

I found its gently maturing nose reminiscent of the beef cacciatore my mother used to make, with its tomato vine and meat notes. The dense, silky-smooth texture of the palate carried warm-tasting flavors of sweet ripe berry fruit and cream that led to a toasty finish perfumed by leather and hinting in the sweet-savory direction of a chocolate pot de crème. Delicious, fully integrated, and supremely enjoyable right now.
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