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What the hell are we flighting, flor?

[flor, © Arnaud 25 via Wikimedia Commons]It’s all about context.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine. Open a bottle and it starts to die, right then and there. The demise may take minutes or long, lingering days, and there may be some interesting…maybe even salutary…effects along the way (certain components kick their respective buckets faster than others), but the fact is that exposing a wine to oxygen is signing its death warrant.

This is as true in the winery as it is in the bottle, and a lot of modern winemaking is about going to elaborate lengths to keep wine and oxygen as far apart as the Montagues and Capulets. The failure to do so turns out about as well as that literary pairing did, albeit without quite so many balcony dramatics. Careful pumping from one container to another, topping up barrels the instant they show a little airspace, bottling under a blanket of oxygen-repelling gas…it’s all part of the basic repertoire.

Sure, there are a few ambered-in-time wine styles – colheita port comes to mind – in which a little bit of oxidation can be expected, but what in the distant past used to be the norm is, today, little more than a historical artifact. These days, when someone mentions oxidation it’s almost always negative…as with the vexing scourge of prematurely-oxidized white Burgundies. And oxidation isn’t the only worry. For in the cellar, oxygen also encourages the growth of unwelcome micro-beasties that will work their own nefariousness on the wine.

Ah…but it’s all about context.

One of the colonizations encouraged by excess in-barrel oxygen is yeast…or at least, a certain type of yeast. Finished with the busywork of turning sugar into poisonous (to them) alcohol, they retreat to the surface, lay back, and commence as much of a sunny post-work bask as yeast cells can enjoy within the darkened confines of a wine barrel. Their cousins join them, pulling up a very tiny beach chair and cuddling close. And soon enough, there’s an enveloping film of recumbent Saccharomyces doing what the winemaker could (or would) not: separating wine from oxygen. Oh, those poor unicellular Romeos and elemental Juliets, they just can’t catch a break…

And then…a bunch of chemical stuff happens. I’m not going to bore anyone (least of all myself) with the details, especially since I’d just be cribbing others’ barely-comprehensible work, and I’d still probably get it wrong. The important thing is that, under certain controlled conditions, this layer of yeast – one that in most situations would mean liquid refreshment for the winery drain – leads to something particularly interesting. The geographical center of such controlled conditions is the region of Spain in which Sherry is made. There (and in other Spanish regions practicing similar techniques) the yeast is called flor, from the Spanish word for “flower.”

But the flower doesn’t just bloom in Spain. It’s also embraced in the Jura region of France, in which vin jaune (yellow wine) is the most famous name amongst a varied, yeast-enveloped genre. There, flor is called voile, which means something like “veil,” “shroud,” or “curtain.” And then there’s Sardinia, with its vernaccia di Oristano, and…well, no need for a complete dossier on flor’s worldwide peregrinations. Enough to know that it’s not just restricted to Jerez and its neighbors.

The French term for the yeast in question raises an interesting question however: what is flor’s role in varietal and site expression? Like fortification, botrytis, bubbles, sans soufre winemaking, and the extended macerations of the orange wine set, is what it adds to the organoleptic palette subverted by its masking, equalizing effects? Do flor-affected wines achieve an asymptotic similarity, or do grape and site still shine through? Perhaps flor itself differs from wine to wine?

These are provocations that can’t be argued into submission, but rather need to be explored by tasting. And the Impresario of Orange, towering (literally) New York wine eminence Levi Dalton – the man responsible for last year’s orange wine bacchanal – is just the man to do it. It is thus that a group of wandering seekers after a babe in swaddling yeasts assemble at Alto, Dalton’s swanky new Manhattan restaurant digs, to find out. Florty-nine wines…each one flor-affected, flighted and sequenced in a controlled setting which will highlight what they do and don’t reveal from behind their veils.

It’s all about context, after all.

Oh…and there’s food. Selected from some of the hits of the flor repertoire but taking a few chances, filtered through Alto’s northern-Italianate leanings (more or less; note the cheesy interloper at the end), and mostly highly-restrained and low-impact, which serves the wines – if not always the food – well.

sausage-stuffed olive, branzino tartare, spiced marcona almonds

capesante dorate e agrodolce di uva
seared scallops, toasted marcona almonds, golden raisin agrodolce

garganelli amatriciana
hand-made pasta quills, pancetta, slow-cooked tomato ragù, basil

sgombro alla griglia
lightly grilled mackerel, fava purée, hen of the woods mushrooms


And so, flortified and sustained, we forge florward…into a walk-around tasting of finos and manzanillas.

El Maestro Sierra Fino (Jerez) – Very salty and fierce, slashing and hacking away at the already well-infused remains of a raw olive pit. Bitter. With food, this is pretty exciting; without it, there’s hurt. (8/10)

Gutiérrez Colosia “Juan Sebastian Elcano” Fino (Jerez) – Dirt, sand, sourness, and rancidity. The worst wine in the room, and by a fair measure. The real first man to sail around the world deserves better than this, doesn’t he? (8/10)

Perez Barquero “Gran Barquero” Fino (Jerez) – Nuts and old citrus oils, with a molten candle-wax texture. Smooth and elegant. (8/10)

Toro Albalá “Eléctrico” Fino (Jerez) – Bitter green olive and lemon pith. Rectangular in form. Not very interesting, but OK. (8/10)

Dios Baco Fino (Jerez) – Perfumed, elegant, and somewhat feminine in form. Flowery. Fills out and lengthens on the finish, though the alcohol becomes more pointed. (8/10)

Lustau “Jarana” Fino (Jerez) – Sweet watermelon and strawberry. Kind of a fluffy fruit bomb. Not what I want. (8/10)

Lustau José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto (Jerez) – Flat-textured. Sand and gravel in planar form. A little weird, but there’s complexity in that weirdness. (8/10)

Valdespino “Inocente” Fino (Jerez) – Lavish, complex, and well-seasoned with various salts and peppers, yet elegant at the same time. Earth-driven, in a grey-toned way. Very impressive. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 15” Fino (Jerez) – Starts texturally lush but quickly turns solid, its dark metals ending in squared-off edges. Seems not to be all it could be. Good but disappointing, I’d call it. (8/10)

Fino is sort of the poster child for flor-influenced wine, and so here is an early demonstration of something that will become increasingly clear as the tasting continues into other regions and realms: while it’s not really possible to mask flor’s influence, the extent to which it’s pushed into a supporting rather than leading role has a lot to do with how positively I respond to a given wine. I should note that come to this tasting with an unfortunate disposition against Sherry – I can appreciate it, but I very rarely love it – and I wonder if someone with more affection for the genre might feel differently, preferring more equilibrium between yeasty and grapey elements. On the other hand, here and in the flight that follows, my favorite wines are those that I’d expect to favor based on reputation, so maybe it’s less an issue of picking the most interesting wines than it is properly appreciating the more typical, middle-of-the-road expressions.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Rusty seawater, thick and chunky. Moody and dark. Difficult to like, or even to approach. (8/10)

Argüeso San León Clásica Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Bright lemon rind, salted stones, and riesling-like metal shards. An inner light lifts this into the realm of refreshing. (8/10)

Pedro Romero “Aurora” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Very fruity (seriously: raspberry and peach, not typical manzanilla descriptors, at least in my experience). Decidedly different and somewhat giggly. (8/10)

Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Direct and overtly fruity, melding stone fruit and Rainier cherries with peaches and just a little bit of minerality. The training wheels need to come off, and soon. (8/10)

Dios Baco “Riá Pitá” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Structured and full-bodied but beaten down by overt sourness and what appears to be light oxidation. Lifeless, really. (8/10)

Lustau “Papirusa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Leafy and barky, with an omnipresent snowflake shower of apricot skin. Medium-toned and average. (8/10)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Spiced berries and dark fruit dominated by minerality. Complex and rather fantastic, albeit showy. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 16” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – The bones are evident, but that’s appealing here, as the plump intensity draped about the skeleton just adds interest. Long, spicy…and dry, dry, dry. Really excellent. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 10” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Heady, dark fruit edging towards cherry, with a saline structure and thick, persistent intensity on the finish. Very impressive. (8/10)

The manzanilla-fest starts slowly, but more approachably than the finos, and then pretty quickly builds towards the same qualitative conclusion as the last flight. I know which producers will be on the shopping list: the same ones that were before the tasting. But a few have dropped off in the interim.

Montagut “Mendall” 2007 “Vinyes Arrencades” (Cataluña) – Apple and honeysuckle. Mead-like. Or maybe it’s dandelion wine? There’s a bit of skin to it, so perhaps it’s neither. Quite interesting. (8/10)

Vevi 1954 “Golden” (Castilla & León) – Spanish speakers would know this as the “Dorada” bottling (why it was so arbitrarily and Ibérico-handedly translated I don’t know), done in solera and made from verdejo (with cameos from viura and palomino) in the Rueda. Sweet and short, blowing itself out early in a soft burst of bronzed banana. Fun and very appealing…while it lasts, which isn’t long. (8/10)

Strictly speaking, the Vevi probably would have been better nearer the end of this meal, alongside the vernaccias, but that would have orphaned the Mendall. Perhaps they’re better left here, as an interesting interlude or a palate reset before delving into much narrower and more directed realms of flor – or rather, voile – expression. Florward march, voilenteers…

Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” (Jura) – Pointedly volatile but otherwise shy, aromatically; it could be that the reticence highlights what would otherwise be submerged volatility. Peachy, pretty, and rounded. Very fresh. If there’s flor influence here, I can’t detect it, despite being assured by all involved that there is. In a tasting of non-sous voile Jura whites, this wouldn’t stand out. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. (8/10)

Bornard 2005 Côtes du Jura Savagnin “les Marnes” (Jura) – Forward fruit and huge acidity. Very juicy, with a gummy texture despite all that acid. Shouldery. (8/10)

Puffeney 2005 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Here’s an interesting twist: mint, lily, apple blossom. Intense, balanced, and unreasonably long, turning more orange-ish and succulent as it lingers. There’s some volatile acidity to deal with, but it’s manageable. (8/10)

Puffeney 2003 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Dusty and dense, with both the texture and some of the form of an orange wine, but also with the fatness of the vintage. Thick, spicy, and shocked with electric tangerine that – alas – doesn’t make up for insufficient acidity. Direct, and yet holding something back. This is good for a 2003, and (as the lengthy note indicates) it’s hardly without interest, but it’s neither typical nor qualitatively above-average. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois Savagnin “Cuvée l’Oubliée” (Jura) – Stone fruit and copper with a beautiful texture. Incredibly interesting, with depths and hidden hollows in that depth, then crannies in those hollows; the finish is almost Mandelbrotian. Gorgeous. It is not, one must caveat, representative of normal Arbois savagnin. It’s special. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois “Cuvée Christelle” (Jura) – A deft but somewhat acrid nose soon loses itself in flowers, mold, and volatile acidity. Powdery. Too weird for me. (8/10)

Here endeth the first flight, in confusion and disarray. A slow start, a peaking middle, and then a jumpy trio of eccentricities. As for enveloping mold characteristics, they’re too voileatile to pin down in this set of wines. Onward…

Macle 2006 Côtes du Jura (Jura) – Almond and metal-armored apple in its woody, post-ripened stage. Deep and rather thoughtful. With that apple, steel, and a (contextually) brittle acidity, it almost seems to have spent some time in riesling’s classroom, learning a lesson here and there but rejecting a more encompassing imposition of form. It’s…different. (8/10)

Ganevat 2005 Arbois “Cuvée de Garde” (Jura) – Windy and difficult on the nose, but the palate makes up for it with an excess of expression. Wet metal, walnut (without bitterness, though), and stones. Angular. (8/10)

Ganevat 2002 Côtes du Jura “La Combe” (Jura) – A little stewed and short, with the alcohol out of balance and to the fore. I ask a few fellow tasters who’ve previous experience with the wine (David Lillie is one, so it’s not like I’m asking random passersby) if this seems to be an intact bottle, and they assure me it tastes as it has. In the absence of that assurance, I’d have thought something was wrong with this bottle, and that something was heat-related. Whatever the cause, it’s not very good. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2001 l’Etoile “Cuvée Spéciale” (Jura) – Lots of acid and even more metals, haphazardly piled atop one another with flash but without cohesion. Vibrant and piercing. It’s a very particular wine, and it will leave you a little breathless along the way. “Good” isn’t really applicable. It’s liquid iconoclasm. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2005 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Very flor-dominated, with a complex stew of high-toned quivering and a waxy interior. Mineral, long, and linear. There’s not much else to it, but I wonder if it’s not just too young to strut. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2004 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Gravelly, moldy, and bitter, with obvious volatile acidity. Short, twisted, and difficult. What happened here? (8/10)

Another pause for us to collect our breath and scrape our tongues. Again, the wines are all over the map both stylistically and qualitatively, but some common threads are starting to appear in the weave. First, the acidity, which is affected by yet manages to stand somewhat apart from varietal influence: here and in other wines it’s a planar, nearly impenetrable, and yet paper-thin wall of zing rather than an integrated partner in the structural framework. Second, there’s a tendency towards volatility that might escape notice for the non-freakishly sensitive (which, alas, I am). Third, and perhaps most relevant to the subject of our study, there’s a way in which flor seems to grasp the wine’s aromatics and structure in a loosely-gripped fist. In return, there’s a payback of textural complexity, but the wine has to work to earn everything else. Some can’t escape the clench and end up dominated by that external envelopment. But those that do seem more alive and in-motion as a result of the energy required for the escape.

The next few wines are a bit of an interlude, starting on-topic but soon darting afield.

Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin (Jura) – Buttered bronze, deep copper, empty silver. I can’t quite get past the midpalate void, but the perimeter is certainly shiny. (8/10)

Loye 1989 Arbois (Jura) – Salted nuts. Simple, forward, and fruity. Kind of a yawn. (8/10)

Campadieu “Domaine La Tour Vieille” Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille “Memoire (d’Automnes)” (Roussillon) – A gorgeous texture (is that oak, though? it does a good impression if not) with cinnamon and nutmeg (again: wood?) plus other spices deeper in the blend. Stands a little too apart in this crowd for proper analysis, I think, but I’d welcome another go in a different context. (8/10)

Causse Marines 1996 Vin de Table “Mysterre” (Southwest France) – More conformity to INAO edict would make this a Gaillac, I’m told. Powdered salt, mixed citrus rinds and skins, and a weird Styrofoam finish. Too bad…it was just getting strange. (8/10)

More glasses are added, until we’re all protected behind a solid wall of glittering crystal fortifications, and then the most focused and relentless assault of single-notion wines commences. It will be quite educational, if not necessarily enlivening.

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Deep, with brittle acidity and a hard, sandpapery texture. There’s a sort of lingering nothingness to the finish. Closed, or just not very interesting? (8/10)

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2001 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Despite a pillowy aspect to what “fruit” there is, the acidity is razored. In fact, I mention the acidity three times in my scribbled notes, so it must have impressed me. What appears to not have impressed me is anything else about the wine, because the acidity is all that I write about. So: the acidic pillow. It might be a great band name, but it’s not a great wine. (8/10)

Macle 2002 Château Chalon (Jura) – Pine-Sol™ and waves of acidity, both traditional and volatile. Frankly, this is actively repellent, though some of that is my personal issue with VA. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2003 Château Chalon (Jura) – Grapey but otherwise subtle. Reminds me of a smoked apple tart. Interesting. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2000 Château Chalon (Jura) – A goopy froth of diffidence. Small and short. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2000 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Pear and metal with big acidity and persistent intensity. A diagonal wine. Hard to ignore, but you must tilt your palate in the correct direction. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 1999 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Sweet with acrid intrusions. The finish is bitter. Weird and old-tasting. I’d be tempted to ascribe this generalized failure to the bottle in the absence of a second sample. (8/10)

Puffeney 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Intense, with great balance. Metal, pear, and layers of compressed leaves. Striking and sophisticated. Very, very good. No…brilliant. My absolute favorite of all the non-Spanish wines, and by a significant margin. (8/10)

Puffeney 2000 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Powdery to the point of being toothsome, with a quinine aroma and a complex, amaro-like bitterness (that is, melding bitter/sweet/herbal components). More interesting than good, though it’s certainly not bad. (8/10)

Puffeney 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Weirdly ashen with spiny acidity. Difficult. I feel like I’m missing something that I might have noticed were my palate not fatigued by this point, but maybe I’m not and there’s just not that much here. (8/10)

I normally count myself a fan of both vin jaune and Château Chalon, albeit I rarely get to taste the latter due to cost and general non-availability. As a result, looking over my collection of notes comes as rather a surprise. Palate ennui? Perhaps, but I don’t notice in the text a devolving reaction to the wines’ similarities, which would be the usual fatigue effect. Instead, there’s an increasingly persnickety spotlight on various flaws and imbalances, and to say that those flaws and imbalances aren’t – to my palate – present is not right either. Without extensive retasting, it’s hard to say much more. I only like three of these wines, and truly love only one. But wow, do I love that one.

In retrospect, I wonder if the serving order doesn’t negatively affect these wines. Not the order within the flight, but the fact that they come after the less-reputed gaggle of wines in the last flight. Reputation doesn’t always equal greater size or concentration, and in fact the previous bunch certainly features more showmanship and overt statement-making. These wines, while largely of a piece within their respective appellations (my notes elide some of the similarities), are quieter…while, at the same time, in more congenial agreement with each other. It is ever the “curse” of such wines that they do less well the more peers they are forced to converse with, and I do suspect the combination of breadth and serving order is at least partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the lineup.

As for veils, curtains, and shrouds, there’s certainly a consistency to the wines in terms of the acid/volatile aromatic relationship. If that’s the voile, then it’s most definitely on display here. But while my favorite wine in the group is (again) the one that layers the most on top of that shroud, I also like a few wines that attempt more playful, interpretative, contrapuntal dances with their veils.

The dinner’s finale is a somewhat amusing one, as our chief server (not Levi, it should be noted) attempts to tell us that the Comté in front of us is Italian and (he thinks) from Puglia. I’m all for his nationalistic boosterism, but…seriously, now. (He does return later, someone red-faced, to admit that it is, in fact, actual Comté. It’s also more than a little wan and flavorless for a Comté, but that’s a separate issue.)

Contini Vernaccia di Oristano “Antico Gregori” (Sardinia) – Honeyed Pink Lady apple cider and pollen. Ripe. Appealing. (8/10)

Contini 1987 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Restrained. Pine nuts and a brittle, snap-crackle honeycomb character. Very pretty. (8/10)

Contini 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – White chocolate-covered mandarin oranges. The finish is a bit abrupt, which might indicate progress down the path of lingering demise. (8/10)

These are delicious, though they don’t have the seriousness of purpose or complex subtlety of many other wines I’ve experienced this evening. They taste – it might be more accurate to say that they feel – more like regular dessert wines than they seem part the yeast-enveloped category. But they’re a nice way to finish the meal.

And so, did I learn anything? Did I florge a new understanding, pull back the veil, open the curtains? More importantly, did I make enough stupid jokes and puns utilizing the subject of the tasting?

The answer: yes, I learned something. I learned that, no matter how good the wine, I’m still not a Sherry aficionado…though I have even more confidence that when I do purchase the category, I’m looking for the right labels. I learned that I like the flor show (NB: that’s Levi’s pun, not mine) more in isolation and counterpoint than I do en masse…a lesson not dissimilar to the one I learned at last year’s orange wine festival.

And as for flor? What strikes me in retrospect is not so much some ineffable commonality of aroma, but of structure. With the expected exception of the hotter years, there’s a very brittle and unstable, yet inexorable, character to these wines’ acidity that really marks them…across places, grapes, and categories. It’s not the high and full-throated acidity of (say) an old-style riesling, but it’s nonetheless impossible to ignore. More than the aromatic and textural changes wrought by the veil, it stands as a sort of signature.

A signature, signed with a florish.

Disclosures: none that matter. The Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin and the Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” were supplied by me and purchased at a friendly discount from The Wine Bottega in Boston.

Eating the pig

Here’s a break from the endless barbera postings (which are about half done, I’d estimate), and also the overlong essays. So what is it? Food, wine, Alsace. No more than that.

[half-timbers]Le Moschenross – Straight out of some forgotten century, through a hotel that looks like it might be decrepit and a lobby so dim that it nearly puts one to sleep, is this surprisingly bright, airy, but frozen-in-time restaurant. In most places, this would be ultra-traditional food, but in Alsace it actually qualifies a little adventurous, moving past the same fifteen or so dishes everyone else serves to…well, let’s call it twenty dishes.

I kid, but only a little. My salad with stuffed quail legs (good, albeit a bit more livery than I prefer) and thin-sliced foie gras is a typically Alsatian rendering of something that would otherwise be light: loading it up with liver and fattened liver is the local variation. (I’m a little surprised there’s neither ham nor starch.) Next is a venison loin, overcooked but flavorful, drenched in a rich meat sauce with excellent steamed-then-fried potatoes, a medley of white and green asparagus, and carrots. Honestly, the stars here are not the meat, nor the sauce, but the accompanying vegetables both stalky and rooted, which taste vividly of themselves. Not something one always finds in northern France restaurant vegetable cookery, especially in Alsace.

The wine list is somewhat short on local bottles (there’s one extravagantly-priced wine from the Rangen, but it’s a Wolfberger, and I’m disinclined to pay around $60 for cooperative wine unless it’s excellent…which, in the past, this bottle has not been), and in any case I don’t think a Rangen anything is a good match for Bambi in this particular form. And so…

Dopff & Irion 2006 Pinot Noir Rouge d’Ottrott (Alsace) – Surprisingly full. Red berries infused with wet soil, a little oak influence, and just enough textural plushness. A very slight bit underripe in terms of tannin, but otherwise well beyond competent and decidedly into the enjoyable realm. This is a somewhat industrial and middle-of-the-road producer that, a few years ago, was trying to make some qualitative steps forward. Maybe they’ve taken a few of those steps.

There’s also a too-sweet alisier eau de vie, fragrant and enticing but just not dry enough, that seems to straddle some middle ground between distillate and liqueur, and indifferent coffee. A good meal, comfortable and filling.

At a rented apartment between two noisy churches in Colmar – really, is it necessary for both to toll lustily every fifteen minutes all day and night? – a quick market-sourced dinner of dos de cabillaud, caramelized leeks, and paprika-spiced haricots verts needs a white wine. And though it’s not a question often asked in this region, why not savagnin?

Boch 2009 Klevener de Heiligenstein (Alsace) – Spice is a regular feature of Alsatian wines, but the spice herein is exotic, white-hued, and all up top. There’s slate, a sort of cold sultriness, and weight pressing down from above. But there’s good structure, too, and some fun leafiness. Nice wine.

[cabaillaud & klevener]Côté Cour – A modernist, slick, clean brasserie right on a busy church-side plaza, and clearly determined to lighten and modernize the local cuisine. Well…to a point. My carpaccio de tête de veau (not, despite the name, raw) is meaty but less complex and interesting than a version devoured a few months ago at the brilliant Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris, and it’s followed by perfectly-cooked rouget abed Robuchon-style butter slightly thickened by puréed potatoes. There’s even a little superfluous foam around the exterior. Everything’s quite good (especially the service), but I’d like to see a stronger embrace of the future rather than just gestures.

Coffee is Nespresso and is indicated as such on the menu (oh, one weeps for the state of French coffee), but the wine list – while young – is fine. Surprisingly, it’s reasonably strong in not only non-Alsatian, but non-French bottlings.

Barmès Buecher 2005 Riesling Herrenweg (Alsace) – Molten iron. Not just the aromatics, but also the weight and density. Almost a really good, dusty, all-mineral wine, but the heaviness is just too much, and eventually overwhelms the palate. Blame the vintage more than the house.

[piggies]Restaurant Barthodli – If anything here has changed since before the dawn of time, including the staff, I’d be shocked. Be prepared for Alsatian food in Alsatian quantities. For example, my first-course order of white asparagus with ham is nixed by the proprietress, who insists that it will be far too much food if I follow it with the second course I intend ; her advice is surprising, but after I receive a platter of a dozen incomprehensibly bloated stalks, exactly right. The accompanying sauces are a butter vinaigrette (of course) and mayo, and…well, what is there to say? The asparagus is excellent, the accompaniments too much, the marriage of the two surpassing.

Another Alsatian classic follows: veal in mushrooms (lots of both), with an accompanying pan of spätzle big enough for three or four people. It’s hearty, rich, mass-endowed food, and though I don’t know how much place it has in a modern society not engaged in transhumance, it’s good to know that it’s still available.

I consider a digestif, but instead opt for yet another local favorite: frozen dessert drenched in eau de vie (in this case, lemon sorbet swimming in marc de gewurztraminer). It’s as woozy as it is good. As for the wine list: the Bordeaux-minded will do pretty well with some mature-ish wines at good prices, but the Alsatian side, while lengthy, is probably less-represented in the actual cellar than it is the wine list. Which explains how I end up with a wine I’d never have ordered had it not been opened away from, and brought to, the table without asking if I’d like a substitute. Oh, well.

Joseph Cattin 2007 Muscat d’Alsace (Alsace) – As much structure and flaky minerality as perfume. Good Alsatian muscat has a strange palate action whereby it seems to be pressing against a wall, and this wine fits into that category. Short, as is fairly typical for this grape, but good.

Sparr 2003 Pinot Gris Mambourg (Alsace) – Way, way, way too sweet and structure-free. The aromatics haven’t developed, the syrupy texture is off-putting, and the wine is just a mess.

[bisexual door]Back at the apartment, this time surrounded by old friends (of twenty years running) who’ve driven from northern Lorraine. We’ve goose foie gras in terrine form from the masterful Liesel, which is by far my favorite type and expression of fattened liver, and after the tenth or eleventh lecture of my life (from the proprietor) on how vendange tardive pinot gris is the one and only wine one could ever consider serving with goose foie gras, I feel a little blind tasting is in order.

Vincent Stoeffler 2006 Riesling Kirchberg de Barr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Decidedly light and Bas-Rhin-ish. A bit hollowed-out. Stainless steel, very light sweetness, elegance but not much poise. Just OK.

Pierre-Paul Zink 1999 Pinot Gris “Vendange Tardive” (Alsace) – Coppery minerality, spice, bronzed pear, finely-flaked textural swirls. A really gorgeous wine…neither overbearing nor overly sweet (there’s plenty of sugar, but enough acidity to counteract). Quite long. Very tasty.

Jean-Paul Schmitt 2002 Gewurztraminer Rittersberg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – 500 ml. Spiced yellow plum, cashew, and fruity bacon fat up front, but then everything fades rather more quickly than I’d like. A good first third, but after that it’s disappointing.

There are twelve tasters to poll, and I ask three questions: what are the wines, do you like them, and which did you prefer with the terrine? The third wine is the easiest to identify (one even ventures a very specific guess of Kaefferkopf), but guesses about the first two are all over the map; literally, in the first case, as two of my friends engage in a very long debate about how the wine absolutely must be German. The second results in answers that cover the full range of possible responses. But the most important question is about the marriage with foie gras, and here the vote is: four for the riesling, two for the pinot gris, and six (including me) for the gewurztraminer. Yes, there are the individual wine qualities to consider, but this result is revealing nonetheless. Of course, after the unveiling, I’m treated to yet another long discourse on why pinot gris was actually the right choice all along, despite the lecturer’s expressed preference for the gewurztraminer…

Wistub Brenner –This restaurant has everything going against it: widespread fame, a position right on a key junction in Colmar’s touristy “Petite Venise” district, a large terrace (underused during these chilly-to-overly-layered-French-folk spring days), and a menu that looks and feels like hundreds (maybe thousands?) of others in the region. But no. The food, authentic and relentlessly traditional, is extraordinary. There’s not a surprise on the menu…at least, not that I can see…but unless one can’t tolerate the region’s traditional cuisine, there’s nothing to do but love what’s on the plate.[escaping statue]

I start with the best presskopf I’ve ever had, the meat and gelatin in perfect proportion and both of surprising intensity, and follow with tourte de la vallée: essentially a compressed pork pie, thick and surrounded by a delicious pastry crust. To finish there’s an intense raspberry sorbet swimming in marc de muscat, a perfect marriage of fruit and flower.

Heyberger-Salch 2007 Muscat “Cuvée Égrappée” (Alsace) – Floral but weedy, with a strappy vegetal note. On the upside, there’s a ton of acidity, but I don’t know that it serves this wine all that well. A few more days on the vine wouldn’t have hurt.

Léon Beyer 2006 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Very dry, almost to the point of being parched, as is the Beyer style and predilection. As such, there’s little in the way of stone or tropical fruit, but instead dried nut powder and the aromatic remnant of beef jerky. Very solid structure. To know if this is ever going to be good, one will have to wait at least a decade. Possibly longer. Worth noting: the wine is inexplicably caveated to me (by the waitress) as “sweet” – which it is most certainly not – and yet three fellow diners reject it as too dry and too bitter.

Trimbach 2004 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – Minerality with little else except some lime-scented acidity. The minerality takes several forms – sheet, powder, and rod – and it’s both dominant and restrained. Very particular, but appealing nonetheless, though one has to like ultra-austere riesling.

Muré 2004 Pinot Noir “V” (Alsace) – Weird in all the ways that Alsatian pinot noir is usually weird, this grand cru pinot noir (it’s from the Vorbourg, hence the not-so-secret code on the label) doesn’t live up to its terroir, except in this way: the fruit’s somewhat soupy, the structure’s both spiky and insufficient, and the wine hasn’t been well-handled in the cellar. Which, it must be admitted, doesn’t much say grand cru to me. A rough go.

Bertrand Eau de Vie Sorbier (Alsace) – That’s “rowan” for English-speakers. Lurid blueberry irreparably marred by a fetid sous bois staleness. I really, really hate this.

Bertrand Eau de Vie Vieille Prune (Alsace) – Standard, straightforward. Some spice, some old raisin, some wood. Not very interesting.

It’s a manzo world

[dinner companions]The president of Asti is making love to her Rs.

No, really. I mean, those of us without the Italian chops are hearing a translation, but it’s hard to pay attention to what’s otherwise a pretty standard “thanks for coming, etc.” speech. Because her Rs are not just rolled. They’re a love story. They’re a romance. They might even be something a little more salacious. I could listen to her pronounce that letter for hours. And when she finally hands the microphone to someone else, I feel a sense of deflation. Of loss.

Slightly delirious with hunger? Yes, that’s me. And thirsty? Why, yes! Wine to drink rather than analyze? Here’s my glass. So…dinner, tonight a rather lavish affair at the swanky Villa Basinetto above Asti and catered by Il Cascinale Nuovo in Isola d’Asti:

millefoglie di lingua di vitello e foie gras, dadini di gelatina al porto
mille feuille of beef tongue & foie gras, with small cubes of port gelatin

zuppa di patate e fagioli borlotti con maltagliati all’uovo
potato & borlotti bean soup with maltagliati pasta

bocconcini di manzo stracotti al vecchio barbera d’asti con polenta
beef stew in old barbera d’asti with polenta

dolci sorprese alla tonda gentile di langa
dessert “surprises” with langhe hazelnuts

Of course, a wine geek’s job is never truly done, and so with the food there’s more note-taking. We’re seated, as we will be all week (except during breakfast, though I’m sure it’s just through lack of foresight) with winemakers, whose own wares – and others’ – appear at our table, have their contents adjusted downward, and are then passed on to other interested tables.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Gavi “Il Poggio” (Piedmont) – Strident greenish-white fruit that gets more pleasant as it aerates. I don’t have enough time with this wine to discern its destination, but there’s at least hope.

Carretta 2009 Roero Arneis “Cayega” (Piedmont) – Spiky to the point of near-frizzante-ness. Lemongrass abounds. Nice acidity.

Rivetto 2008 Langhe Bianco “Matiré” (Piedmont) – Made from nascetta. Light and slightly floral…lilies, mostly. Simple, pretty, and pretty simple.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Grignolino d’Asti “Spineira” (Piedmont) – Wrenched. Skin bitterness, needles of acidity, and planar fruit.

Pastura “La Ghersa Piagè” 2009 Monferrato Chiaretto (Piedmont) – Made from barbera. It’s a pretty little thing, smirking from the glass with spiced apple, strawberry, raspberry, and mustard powder. Very crisp. Pure enjoyment.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Le Cave” (Piedmont) – Volatile. Crushed berries with some dirt. Pretty straightforward, and decent enough.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Camparò” (Piedmont) – Thick but not overdriven, with darkish, lush fruit pushed rather aggressively from behind, but not so hard that it trips over its own feet.

Castlet 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Passum” (Piedmont) – Huge. Massive. Sizeable. Big. The adjectives sort of peter out, and so does the wine. Oh, it’s long enough, but the New World blast of volume never goes anywhere, and eventually just collapses under its own weight.

Rocche Costamagna “Bricco Francesco” 2005 Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata (Piedmont) – Corked, though this is a minority opinion at our table.

Pastura “La Ghersa” 2009 Moscato d’Asti “Giorgia” (Piedmont) – Frothy orange and brighter citrus. Floral, of course. Simple.

Romano Dogliotti 2009 Moscato d’Asti “La Caudrina” (Piedmont) – Lightly floral and quite supple. Usually these things are little more than explosions of the flower/perfume variety, so delicacy is something to be admired in a sense. In another sense, however, one wishes for a bit more. I know, I know: one can wish for too much.

After dinner, we find the one bar in downtown Asti that’s open late (and even they’re closing, though they take pity on a bedraggled group of foreigners) and replenish ourselves on the electrolyte-refreshing sports drink of wine folk everywhere: beer. All is right with the world.

The question is: will I stick to that story tomorrow, when I’ve only had three hours of sleep?

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Francheesy pizza

[pizza]It has been pointed out to me, more than once, that no one in Italy drinks wine with pizza. I don’t know that this is true – I’ve seen it – but it is certainly not the majority choice.

But our blogging team, gathered in the pleasant chill of an early Asti evening, is if nothing else a collection of wine dorks. And so wine it will be, with Milanese-influenced pizza at Francese (via dei Cappellai 15, Asti). Lots of it, as well.

The pizzas? Crispy at the exterior, mushy in the middle – the thing A16 always gets dinged for, even though they’re doing it correctly – with intense ingredients dealt to the pizza’s upper surface with the restrained hand of the Italian rather than the lavish hand of the American. But the truth is, authenticity and appeal are not necessarily the same thing, and while I appreciate the presence of either, my personal preference is for a more cracker-like crust. The relative thinness of toppings doesn’t bother me (it depends on the specifics), and I find the balance and purity of our DOP mozzarella, basil, and tomato very nearly perfect. I just wish there was a less “authentic” crust. Our pizzas are followed by a series of cake-like desserts that are lovely in their rich simplicity, but filling to the extreme.

Jeremy Parzen, our team leader and renaissance guru of all things Italianate – on which see below for more – is a trip and a half in his escalating (as the wine flows) mix of loquacity and a certain thoughtful despondency. As the evening progresses, he turns into a one-man quote machine, for both good and ill. Much of what he says I am compelled to redact for reasons of propriety, but here’s a brief sample of his wisdom:

[costa d’amalfi bianco]“I’ve got a fuckin’ PhD in Italian poetry, fuckin’…Thor.”

“This [moscato d’Asti] is the number one strip club wine in America, because strippers love it.”

San Francesco 2008 Costa d’Amalfi “per eva” (Campania) – A blend of falanghina, pepella, and ginestra. Sounds more like an opera than a wine, to me. Anyway, it’s a touch spritzy, full of lime and lemongrass, with a surprising chalkiness that sneaks up, takes over for a moment, and then skitters away. Sour bones of structure and pale decay clutter up the finish. Very interesting.

Oddero 2001 Barolo Rocche di Castiglione (Piedmont) – Already fairly mature in some ways, with its soil turned pepper-powdery and the fruit having yielded to well-dried black roses. Old tar, laid long ago with aspiration, through a long-fallow field permeates both the tar and the structure. The finish is soil-derived but powdery. Very approachable, and despite all expectations I’d consider drinking this nowish.

Ratti 2001 Barolo Marcenasco (Piedmont) – Light and dirty, with a lift to it despite the dark-fruited, brooding core. Crushed flowers everywhere. This is still developing, and while there are prematurely mature elements present, the wine itself is still reasonably firm and grippy, and will need another five-plus years (at the very least to yield its full range of aromatic complexity.

[incredible cake]Produttori del Barbaresco 2005 Barbaresco (Piedmont) – Very tannic and brutish, with flailing acidity and a biting lash of tart red fruit. Powerful and concentrated in a way that’s perhaps not expected from this basic blend, with sour cherry mostarda taking control of the finish. Very, very young.

Forteto della Luja Loazzolo (Piedmont) – A moscato passito, piney and floral, with a giant burst of intensity that comes up short. Striking for its moment, but that moment is soon lost.

Saracco 2009 Moscato d’Asti (Piedmont) – Bright apple foam, lightly perfumed and joyous, but with a serious face as well. Neither pure fun nor overly aspirational, but forging a middle path.

Surface tension

[grado water reflection]For every cherished experience, there is a transformative moment. Sometimes, it’s sought…but other times, it strikes as unexpectedly as lightning from a clear blue sky. This is an example of the latter.

Until this experience, I can say that I’ve found grappa interesting. Interesting…but not good. It has been something to be explored for its variety and source-specificity, for its place in an Italian life, and for its convivial role. But this grappa changes everything. I am enraptured. Instantly, and without reserve. This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

My notes, as scribbled into my journal at the moment of encounter, initially identify what I’m drinking as “incomprehensible label, producer in Nieve.” It’s only after I smell, and taste, that I apply myself to the work of deciphering the hand-drawn labels for which this producer is famous. I have never tasted a grappa like this, either in form or in quality. It is so superior to anything I’ve previously encountered that it might as well be its own category. Supple yet full-flavored, drawing both fruit and mineral into a distillation of floral complexity, then lingering in a gentle decrescendo that slowly exposes both that minerality and the memory of a faded bouquet of the palest white roses. This is the best. The absolute best. I’m floored. Stunned. Moved. So much of all three that the returning sommelier, noticing my bliss and knowing its source, pours a generous second helping in my glass. Who is this magician?

…continued here.

Driving into the past

[misty larrau gorge]Contradiction. Confusion. Clarity. I’m in search of all three, and expect to find them where I’m headed. Yet another disputed region in which conflict catalyzes creativity, and where traditions elsewhere preserved in amber and writ are not yet done being made. Where one’s geographical location depends on who one asks, where language is who one is rather than what one speaks, and where home is what one is called rather than where one lives. Where the streets have neither no nor one name, but two. And where the beef on one’s plate might actually be watermelon.

…continued here.

In the Can

[cathedral tomb]We’re led to a table in the front, where they seem to have grouped most of the non-locals, and pretty soon they’re wheeling a pair of large wooden carts – they looked like sawed-off lecterns –in our direction. These are the wine lists…and yes, that word is plural by design, rather than finger-slip.

…continued here.

Adventures in the skin trade

bio-ld“Show me some skin!” That, at least, was the plea. Skin there was, and a lot of it. Flesh everywhere, on naked display in a steamy den of iniquity, itinerancy, and ice buckets.

Maybe I should explain.

All and sundry – or perhaps mostly just the sundry – gathered from far and wide at Convivio’s swanky Tudor City digs, under the glowering eyes of Ivan Lendl-look-alike (and, it must be admitted, ultra-talented restaurant wine dude) Levi Dalton, for food, frolic, and bitterness. The latter stemming from an intense, in-depth assessment of a wine so unusual that it required an entirely new color category – orange – to go along with the previously-sufficient red, white, and pink.

What is an orange wine? I’m not particularly glad you asked, because I have no better handle on the label than anyone else. In general, the idea is that it’s a white wine produced with the extended skin contact characteristic of reds, which (especially among the darker-skinned white varieties) does indeed produce deeper, more intense colors ranging from straw through strawberry, and also renders the wine noticeably tannic. The wines are usually (but not always) left in the un-clarified, overtly cloudy state that seems to result. And that, at the core, is that. There are other philosophical branches and fields of practice within the orange wine family, some of them quite populous…non-filtration, avoidance of sulfur, aging in custom-made amphorae, and so forth. The category as a whole also maintains a good deal of contact with the ever-growing “natural wine” movement, but in truth the orange wines would more correctly be accused of being throwbacks to a much, much older type of winemaking, and “natural”-ness is no requirement for the style.

For some, in fact, orange wines are anything but natural, no matter how historical a vinification they might represent. The transformation of a white wine into such a state, the argument goes, is as profound a manipulation as any. There’s merit to the argument, with only the caveat that the manipulation in question belongs to the class of grape-native cellar techniques that do not add or remove anything from the wine that doesn’t already exist in the grape, a distinction which, for some, makes a difference. The wines bear no relation to the truly transformational field known as molecular gastronomy, but they do share one thing in common with that realm: a direct and forceful challenge to one’s expectations of identity and typicity.

But no matter one’s philosophical view, the wines are different, and – naturally – divide opinions. Some cannot abide them. Others love them with a religious fervor. For both, the price – usually elevated in comparison to “normal” whites – is a limiting factor, but one surpassed by availability; there aren’t many of these wines to begin with, total production often ranges between limited and anecdotal, and thus they’re notoriously hard to find. Many enthusiastic wine drinkers will pass their entire drinking lifespan without encountering an orange wine. But for the seeker of vinous sensation, or at least of individuality, the opportunity to assemble and experience a (to my knowledge) unsurpassed collection of such wines in one place cannot reasonably be ignored.

It is often said, and widely believed, that the geographical heart of the orange wine movement is the Friulian/Slovenian border. There’s a certain truth to that, especially as its controversial father-figure – Josko Gravner – is located there, but the world of orange wines is a wider one these days. Italy still provides a majority of the names, but there’s also Slovenia and Croatia, and even France and California are now in the game.

But enough introduction. What about the wines?

One of the vexing issues with the orange wine cohort is finding amenable food pairings. The one ingredient on which everyone seems to agree is sea urchin – not exactly everyday fare for most – but the trick seems to be focusing on the structure and weight of the wines rather than a particular set of aromas. For example, the familiar tannin/fat counterpoint works as well here as it does with similarly-structured reds. Still, there’s a bit of a guessing game involved, and even the most inspired matches don’t necessarily meld with the wines, which are inherently cranky, iconoclastic, and less than enthusiastic about playing well with others.

For example, here’s what Convivio came up with. Despite the difficulties of the food/wine marriage, all of it was of uniform excellence. Did it enhance the wines? Sometimes, yes. Frequently, no. Yet I sincerely doubt any alternative choices would have improved matters. Such are the pitfalls of dining on the vinous edge.

olives, marinated mushrooms, several types of bruschetta, arancini

sliced yellowtail crudo, olivada, caper, pistachio

Mediterranean snapper, fava bean purée, cuttlefish, radish, mint, almond salad

Sardinian saffron gnocchetti, crab, sea urchin

grigliata mista
grilled pork belly, house-made sausage, lentil salad, ricotta salata


[ribolla gialla grapes]There was also a valiant attempt to impose a certain order on the tasting, which succeeded about as well as the food/wine pairings. Again, there is no fault to be laid at the feet (or the mind) of anyone responsible; the wines are just too unpredictable, and react to each other in surprising ways, confounding even the most careful organization. More successful were thematic micro-groupings…for example, a series of wines made by the Bea family, or a comparison of older Gravner and Radikon in matched vintages…from which certain continuities of style and differences in approach could be identified. The most unfortunate outcome of the organizational effort, however, was that it kept Levi Dalton on his feet, serving and explaining, for the vast majority of a tasting that one would have hoped he could sit back and enjoy. Alas. Perhaps there will have to be a sequel.

The only other misstep, minor and soon corrected, was the temperature of some of the wines. The room was warm (and got warmer as the well-lubricated badinage escalated), so in an attempt to keep wines from overheating to unpalatability, ice buckets were employed. This was a fine idea, except that it meant many of the early wines were served chilled. This is almost always a mistake with orange wines for the same reason it’s problematic with structured reds: tannin overwhelms the wine, and complexities are muted. As the evening went on, this was corrected (another way in which our generous host was overworked), and even for the affected wines a little hand-warming of glasses soon brought the liquid into form.

The notes that follow are not presented in the order in which the wines were tasted. And – an important caveat – they’re much shorter than I’d prefer. My typical orange wine note is a lengthy paragraph, which seems justified for wines that defy convention and easy categorization, but given the format and the speed of new arrivals, there was simply not much time to spend with each wine, teasing out each hidden notion and ribald suggestion.

Cà de Noci 2007 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Stale paper with a bouquet of flowers in slow emergence. Acrid. This needs…I don’t know. But it needs something. And less of some other things. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Lush pear and apricot. Almost buttery. Somewhat flamboyant, but its an appealing showmanship…flirtatious, yet classy. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2005 “riserva dei fratelli” (Emilia-Romagna) – Sparkling, though it’s more of a slushy froth than a proper pétillance. Apple and acid, with light bitterness and a fresh finish. However, the nose is odd, and mostly absent. Some are moved to a tentative declaration of cork taint (oddly, all such are female), but the importer (who is present) says not. Still, he agrees that the wine seems off in some fashion. (7/09)

Casa Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – Dry as a desert, and rather desert-like in its lack of visible life. I liked this wine a lot more last month. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Amphora” Bianco (Veneto) – Rich, dark, dusted with cocoa, and luxuriant with the texture of cocoa butter. A very full and blossomy wine, and one that would easily fool many into thinking it’s a red in a true blind tasting. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Terralba” (Veneto) – Soft and pretty apricot flowers with a little kiss of sweet nectar. But then, the wine just sort of disappears. Where did it go? (7/09)

Clai Bijele Zemlje 2007 Malvazija “Sveti Jakov” (Istra) – Solid, by which I mean uniformly dense rather than well-executed. Plays at being interesting, but it lacks the depth to follow through on its initial promise. (7/09)

Cornelissen 2007 “MunJebel 4” Bianco (Sicily) – Pine, melting cedar candle, orange rind, and coal. There’s a medium-toned brown hum to the wine, but a sharp declension on the finish; with a little more linger, this could be a star. As it is, it’s merely fascinating, but the fascination is brief. I somewhat preferred a 3 (from 2006) tasted earlier this year. (7/09)

Damijan 2003 “Kaplja” (Collio) – Fat tangerine. Short and blowsy. It seems that some orange wines can’t avoid being victimized by this vintage, though there are exceptions. This isn’t one of them. (7/09)

Damijan 2004 “Kaplja” (Collio) – A lovely nose of ripe fruit, flowers, and confiture, but the palate is separated and disappointing. (7/09)

de Conciliis 2004 “Antece” (Campania) – Bitter almond soap with the texture of a whiteout blizzard, and a little sherried throughout. Simple and direct. (7/09)

Massa Vecchia 2005 Maremma Toscana Bianco (Tuscany) – A bit of a brett bomb, though eventually the wine starts to show things other than fetid stench, including a silky palate that glides and skates as if on the smoothest ice. A little more attention to hygiene, and this would be a beauty. (7/09)

Gravner 1997 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Heavy, but it’s a good weight. Lush with mandarin-scented Madeleine, plus cotton candy whipped with tart threads. There’s a slightly bitter, Campari-esque note which seems like it should be an “off” character, yet the wine benefits from the counterpoint. This is aging very nicely, and while it doesn’t seem to be showing signs of decline, it’s very likely that I have no idea what those signs might be for this particular wine. (7/09)

Gravner 2000 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Sweet yellow cherry with some oddities I can’t quite identify. Whatever’s going on, it’s tasty enough but a little distracting. Long. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Slightly bitter, and this time the bitterness takes the form of vanilla, especially on the backpalate. Leafy. A sharp left turn from the pre-amphora ribollas. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 “Breg Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Bitter almond and apple, with tight layers of complexity and minerality pressed together like an Austrian pastry. There’s a swaggering confidence to this wine that few others of its type can pull off. Yet this is not to say that it’s better, necessarily, just that it’s more overtly self-assured. (7/09)

Hautes Terres de Comberousse 2001 “Cuvée Roucaillat” (Languedoc) – Fat, overly lactic, and kind of nasty. (7/09)

Kante 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Carso) – The most identifiably-varietal wine in the room, and by a wide margin, though much of that is the familiarity of sauvignon. Is this actually a skin-contact white? It shows few of the characteristics of one, with its vibrant, zingy gooseberry, sharp-edged minerality, and lavish acidity. A good wine, but it seems out of place in this crowd. (7/09)

Angiolino Maule “La Biancara” 1996 “Taibane” (Veneto) – Soft. Strawberry, peach, and blood orange. This needs a lot more structure, which is something I didn’t think I’d be able to say about an orange wine. (7/09)

La Stoppa 2004 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Dark metallic orange with a heady rush of deep minerality. Sophisticated and striking. Absolutely delicious. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Simple grapefruit rind, with a light spicing dominated by white pepper. And is that celery? It’s like a stealth grüner veltliner has entered the room and is masquerading as a “baby” orange wine. This is initially fairly disappointing, but gains a measure of weight and texture with extended aeration. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to explore this in more detail. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2006 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Bigger and fuller-bodied than the 2007, showing a blend of red and Rainier cherries. Round, yet there’s a washed-out quality to the finish, as if the wine rather clumsily gives its all right at the start, and has nothing left for the duration of the race. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium Rusticum” (Lazio) – Extremely tannic. Metal and charred orange, maybe even a bit of ash. Acid-dominated on the finish, which is extremely long. Tight and no fun. My last bottle of this was a stunner. What happened? (7/09)

Bea 2004 “Arboreus” (Umbria) – Sweet spice. Round, pretty, and very complete. This is the wine version of Miles’ In a Silent Way, and that’s high praise from me. (7/09)

Movia 2007 Ribolla Gialla “Lunar” (Goriška Brda) – Delish. I know it probably wants to be serious, but really it’s more like a Greek island beach party…albeit from several hundred years ago. No tropical umbrellas here. Very appealing, and in an immediate way. (7/09)

[radikon bottles]Radikon 2001 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Tight, metal-jacketed plum. A bit hot, which is something I’ve not previously experienced from this wine. Somewhat indifferent. Perhaps an off bottle (or an off taster). (7/09)

Radikon 2003 “Jakot” (Venezia Giulia) – Some alcohol here, plus pear and raw, exposed metal. Fat. The heat lingers into the finish. (7/09)

Radikon 1997 Ribolla Gialla “Riserva Ivana” (Venezia Giulia) – Soft fullness and salty white soil. Seems more mild-mannered than it actually is…there’s a fair bit of complexity and depth…but the wine’s gentle in every aspect. There’s a very slight edge of heat creeping into the margins, but otherwise all is seamless. This isn’t aging so much as cohering, and in a very appealing way. (7/09)

Scholium Project 2006 “San Floriano del Collio” Rocky Hill (Sonoma Mountain) – The reddest of all the wines; this could easily pass for a dark rosé, rather than an orange wine, and at 16.9% alcohol it’s pushing what few boundaries remain. Par for the Scholium course, I guess. Grassy and greasy, yet with sharp-edged pistachios, some fatness, and (big surprise) noticeable alcohol. Anise, as well, plus maraschino cherries and rather intense minerality. In its less admirable moments, it also smells more than a bit like a fetid poire william eau de vie, but I don’t mean to be overly discouraging; I like this more than I’ve ever liked a Scholium Project wine (granted, the competition for this title has not been fierce). (7/09)

Vodopivec 2003 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Big blood orange, juiced and pumped full of oxygen (by which I don’t mean oxidation, nor microbullage, but a breath-inducing vivacity), with a core of steel and walnuts on the finish. Powerful. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Clementine and aluminum. Fat. Short. And disappointing. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska “solo | MM4” (Collio Goriziano) – Direct and forceful, but to what end? The power seems in service of vanishingly little. Maybe it’s just shy, but this is a rather intense void at the moment. Perhaps it’s a singularity of some sort. A black an orange hole? (7/09)

Wind Gap 2007 Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley) – Spicy pear with a slightly lactic note, but not enough to be unpleasant. Intense, big, long, and luscious. Way more interesting than anything the Scholium Project has produced. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Malvasia (Carso) – Full and spicy, but ends rather abruptly. Simple memories of walnut are all that linger. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Vitovska (Carso) – Mixed nuts. Very tannic, and edging towards desiccation. Simple, and in fact more than a little boring. (7/09)

After the orange lineup (during which I apparently skipped noting one wine, though I do remember end-of-evening confusion over an extra glass before me), there’s a bit of a reddish coda. Frankly, after the relentless surreality of this tasting, it’s like a return to “real wine”…not more natural or authentic, but at least recognizable ground. I can feel my palate sigh in relief, but what’s more striking is the way that the sensory realms of my brain sort of unclench, as if they’ve been operating in a state of high tension for the last few hours.

Cappellano 2005 Nebbiolo d’Alba (Piedmont) – Dusty red fruit, soft yet strong, with a nearly flawless texture. Absolutely classic nebbiolo, masterfully presented. (7/09)

Leroy 1983 Volnay (Burgundy) – Pretty. Very, very pretty. Showily so. And strikingly youthful; the structure’s resolved, but the fruit is still fairly primary and direct. I don’t quite know what to make of this, but admittedly my palate is completely exhausted at this point. (7/09)

My favorites of the tasting? The Arboreus, certainly, and the Ageno. The 2006 Cà de Noci, the 2002 Lispida (but not the Terralba), the Vodopivec 2003, and most of the Gravner lineup. And, it must be said, the Wind Gap, which was the most pleasant surprise of the night…especially considering my much dimmer opinion of the winemaker’s former project.

Disappointments? A few, most notably a couple of the Radikons, for which I cannot account (I’m normally a great admirer of the wines), and which I will thus chalk up to some brief weirdness in a food/wine, wine/wine, or wine/taster interaction. The other Cà de Nocis, both Zidarich bottlings…and I could go on, but won’t. Truth be told, a lot of these wines showed seams, lacks, and occasionally outright faults. However, I think there might be a reason for that performance. Read on.

[press & amphora]Tasting a bunch of wines is always fun (unless they’re terrible, which these most definitely were not) but from the above-noted level of focus and direction, one does hope that there are lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn. And I think there are.

The claim has occasionally been made that the orange wine regimen, like oak or botrytis, so heavily marks the wines that it trumps varietal character, terroir, and even individuality. This set of wines shows that to be mostly nonsense; there’s plenty of diversity evident, and the wines are as different as one would expect them to be in any other context. Grapes do show, though perhaps not with the consistency exhibited in more typical wines. As for terroir, there is at least (in many cases) sub-regional continuity between these and more prosaic wines from their neighborhoods, though to say more than that would be to claim an illegitimate expertise. So why the caveat “mostly?” Because of the tannin, which in some (not all) of the wines enforces an identifiable structural similarity…a sort of pedal tone around which the other elements must work. When it plays a harmonious role, it’s the foundation on which the wine’s art and architecture are built. When it doesn’t, it’s the squawky drone of a wheezing, decrepit bagpipe.

Another much-asked question is whether or not orange wines age. There’s really not enough evidence here to say for sure. Certainly the few older wines present seem to have aged just fine, softening in the way one would expect tannic wines to soften. As the tannin melts, creamier textures emerge. That said, many of these wines very much rely on that tannin for counterpoint. Once it’s gone, the result is a lushness almost entirely opposite the face these wines present in their youth. As with any aging process, opinions will differ on the stage at which the wines are most intriguing. The only tentative conclusion I feel safe drawing is that the curious can probably age the better of these wines without fear of precipitous decline. On the other hand, one may reasonably fear biological instability in those wines that avoid filtration, sulfur, and other methods of stabilization; while their structure is itself preservationist in nature, not all of the wines are entirely clean, or have avoided oxidation. I would not age the more natural wines absent a properly-controlled cellar.

Some of the wines I’ve always felt I loved were, in this context, less impressive than expected. Others performed above their pay grade. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not, but this is why one holds tastings…to learn just this sort of thing. I must also presume that, as in any quick-take tasting of a fair number of wines, concentration and intensity are more favorably received than they might be in isolation, The corollary conclusion that delicacy is inevitably devalued or even lost must also be considered. As ever, such tastings do not replicate the experience of a slow encounter with a single bottle.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion, for me, is that I didn’t enjoy tasting these wines in this particular fashion nearly as much as I had hoped. The dinner, the tasting, the camaraderie…all were enormous fun, and definitely worth the participatory effort (though I will admit to a savage headache the next morning). But while I adore a lot of these wines in isolation, in concert my affection for them dimmed, and I was surprised how indifferent I was to the qualities of all but a few bottles. It could be that the accumulated negativity is a result of the rather overpowering and aggressive nature of the wines, which were more of a chore to slog through than I’d expected. Also, there was an extremely draining mental aspect; teasing out the complexities and the wildly individualistic essences of orange wines is a difficult enough task to begin with, but doing it as bottles fly past, food arrives, and tablemates chatter away is a perhaps insurmountable challenge to even the most intense attempt at concentration. I was tired at the end of this tasting, but mentally far more than physically, and even writing about the experience several days after the fact brings forth a clear physical sensation of sensory fatigue.

It would be intriguing to explore this matter further. But as I write this, my overriding emotion is that I’d like – or perhaps I need – a short break from orange wines. My curiosity has been somewhat over-satisfied, and my palate is suffering burn-in. In the end, it turns out that the scolds and the finger-waggers were right: it’s possible to show too much skin.

Predator, prey

[lion’s head]He sits directly in my path, staring. There’s no way to get around him, and going through him is beyond consideration, considering the multiple sharp, hooked weapons he’s carrying…including the one pointed directly at me. His head rotates…left, right, left again…and then he re-fixes his gaze on me as he lets out a low ululation. A warning, perhaps. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Eventually, his lids droop, and he seems to fall into a wary semi-slumber. Or is he just faking it? Maybe I can step over him, if I move quickly…

…continued here.

Three days in New Amsterdam

[drinking]It’s a birthday ending in zero. Why not spend it in New York?

Day 1

After two weeks squiring French friends around Boston, to Vermont, to Montréal, back to Vermont, and back to Boston again, with all the attendant excess food and wine (and their corollary and cumulative sleep deficit), there’s neither time nor desire for extended festivization…just a quick bite, and then sleep. So, a meal at Momofuko Noodle Bar suits, and it’s pretty much as expected: good, eclectic, crowded, and so forth. I don’t really understand the hassle this place gets. Yes, each dish can probably be had for less somewhere else. The same is true for a lot of restaurants. My Szechuan noodles…better elsewhere? Undoubtedly. But I don’t think those places are going to serve me sashimi as a first course. Which, itself, is probably not up to other places either. But for a couple of interesting courses, a beer, some water…it’s just not that expensive, everything tastes good, and it’s all in one place. What’s the problem? OK, the seats aren’t that comfortable. There’s my big criticism.

Afterwards, I saunter over to Terroir to meet some wine board folk. Scott Reiner is there, with a friend. There’s also an exceedingly energetic young lady whose enthusiasm for wine studies would be infectious had such enthusiasm not long since been beaten out of me by the hateful cynicism of the wine trade. Or maybe, that’s just my own homegrown cynicism. Well, whatever. (I later hear a rumor that she’s California winemaking royalty, of a sort. Is that like being a cellar princess? Are the crown jewels made from tartaric crystals? Well, I wish her luck. There’s a big exam in her future that should be happening…right about now.) There are some others with us, as well, and everyone seems to love wine, but we’re about two too many and in the wrong ambience for full-group conversation.

And then there’s Sharon Bowman. With whom I have a long chat, even though – thanks to Terroir’s scene-setting soundtrack – I can only hear about every fourth word she says. Get some Freon in those lungs, Sharon!

The wines? There’s a 2003 Burgundy that’s surprisingly OK (a Gevrey? I can’t remember), and a de Moor Chablis that’s better than OK, but I don’t take notes and don’t much regret that I don’t.

Day 2

It’s nice, for a change, to not be staying in Midtown. I wander the neighborhoods, noshing on whatever rises above the can’t-get-that-in-Boston threshold, which here is a pretty hefty tally of stuff. One standout is Otafuku (236 E 9th St.), where the multiply-sauced fried octopus balls, eaten on a two-seat bench out front, are stupidly addictive. The day’s perfect for strolling, and so stroll I do. And not once do I have to push through any holders of tickets to Legally Blonde: The Musical, or walk past any naked cowboys. Hallelujah!

Later, I’m jacket clad, and thus a little less comfortable than before. A taxi deposits me in an awfully ritzy neighborhood just behind the U.N. I’m here for dinner, but also for another encounter with a nefarious wine board habitué. This time, it’s Levi Dalton.

Levi and I have an interesting history that’s not worth recounting here, but involves my repeatedly trashing a former employer, and then a creepy stalking incident a few years back in which he told me where I sat and what I ate at a dinner at said establishment that happened at least a decade ago. (Or maybe he just has an eidetic memory. OK, so forget the “creepy stalking” thing.) Despite all this, we’ve never met, but he recognizes me as I malinger on the sidewalk. It’s at this point that I realize that he’s actually Ivan Lendl.

I always wondered what he’d gotten up to.

The Olde Englishe Drawinge Roome feel of Convivio’s bar is suited to its current patrons, most of whom are probably wearing socks that cost more than my entire suit. I never do get a look at the interior dining room, but a few rather striking model-types walk by on their way to and from, so maybe this is a mistake. I will say that the one thing I’d want, were I an employee here, is a bar that I didn’t have to duck under every single time I passed its threshold. After all, Lendl’s a tall guy. That can’t be easy.

So anyway, “Levi” pours me some sparkling wine while I wait for my dining companion:

Donati 2007 Malvasia di Candia Frizzante (Emilia-Romagna) – Straight from the bottle (which was, I believe, previously-opened), there’s a bit of traditional-lambic funk; alongside the spritz and the nippy acidity, this is like a far less painful Cantillon. These elements settle and cohere with air and rising temperature, bringing out some proto-peach and grapefruit precursors, a tactile but not gustatory salinity, and that ever-present spiky buzz of sparkle. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the wine is monotonic in pitch. But there’s a lot going on in that note, and so the quibble remains no more than a quibble. (6/09)

After said companion’s arrival, we’re seated outside, in what must be one of the only quiet street-side patios in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful night, with just a hint of chill. Theresa orders from the menu, I just let them bring whatever seems best, and the procession of courses that follows is really quite impressive. This is Italian, more or less…and the “more” is the simplicity of conception, more than the actual style of cooking (though that’s Italian as well). There’s nothing I don’t love, and that’s a rarity. Moreover, the prix fixe menu – their suggested mode of dining – is, especially for Manhattan, a rather impressive value for what one receives.

As I leave the food in the kitchen’s hands, I also leave the drinking in Levi’s hands. (Not that I actually drink out of his hands. That would be gross. Especially with all those blisters from years of topspin forehands.) There’s one exception – Theresa’s in the mood for a specific dessert wine at the end of the meal – but I’m both well- and over-served, and this is another not-in-Boston moment…because back home, someone would have to drive afterwards.

Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – This grape seems to lend itself very well to representations other than the dominant one…so much so that I wonder if a lot more exploration along these lines might be beneficial. And just as fully dry sparkling Prosecco is often too parched and barren for its own good, so too do the barely-sparkling and still versions benefit from something that one can’t quite call sweet, but rather “soft”; they might call this sec-tendre in Vouvray (though I should note that I actually have no idea of the actual residual sugar level in this particular wine). Here there’s a yellowness that’s neither lemony nor stone-fruited, sun and freshness, and a kind, subtle nervosity about the meniscus that lends the wine just enough edge to avoid turning into a drinkable pillow. Yet there’s the dusty memory of earth, as well, and a little bit of crispness that clarifies. But no…these are too many words for this wine, whose pleasures are simpler than all this verbiage. (6/09)

Sella 2007 Coste della Sesia Rosato “Majoli” (Piedmont) – Pink nebbiolo is my favorite (still) pink of all, I’ve learned. It’s a shame that there’s so little of it. This is a more aggressive interpretation than many, less so for its structure – the tarry bite of tannin is shed, and the acidity has loosened into full-blown juiciness – than its fruit, which is as much orange as it is red and pink, and sounds the occasional braying, brassy note. So it’s a rosé that demands attention, and keeps it by remaining balanced throughout (lacking the so-common rosé flaw of excess alcohol). But it’s not a “serious” wine, whatever one prefers that term to mean. (6/09)

Giobatta 2007 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese di Albenga “U Bastiò” (Liguria) – Mercaptan-dominated. There seems to be some rather gorgeous, barn-floor earth and soft red fruit underneath, but for me the stink is not quite penetrable. The less-sensitive (among which are numbered by dining companion, whose wine this actually is) will find less fault, and in fact said dining companion rhapsodizes about the wine. (6/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “Notte di Luna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Not an orange wine, exactly (it’s far too pale and recognizable for that), but one in training, with the sandpaper scrape of tannin abrading a broth of whitish stone fruit, dried pith, and powdered stone, then finishing with the tactile buzz of newly-absent soda. While potentially gorgeous, it’s sorta elusive in my glass…not in the endless-descriptor fashion of the true orange-wine cohort, but in a more diffident fashion. This could just be a function of its context (other wines, food, distraction), and so I’d like another chance at this. Preferably several. (6/09)

Somwhere in here is a Vestini Campagnano Terre del Volturno 2005 “Kajanero” (Campania) that, alas I don’t manage to taste. Or if I do, I don’t remember anything about the wine.

Fià Nobile 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – Spiderwebs of red fruit that come off as insistent, but are actually rather soft-hearted. Volcanic dust, as well? Yes, some (alongside more organic brown earth), and this is a wine with a fair measure of soil amidst the berries. Balanced and highly approachable. Yum. (6/09)

Gulfi 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Sicily) – A mix of red and darker fruit, shouldery and fairly powerful, yet with enough restraint to avoid being boisterous or overblown. There’s a dark core of soil and rock here, slightly lava-esque, but the concentration of the fruit that surrounds it doesn’t allow much penetration at present. Full and muscular, with aging potential. (6/09)

Pellegrino 2007 Passito di Pantelleria (Sicily) – Perfume and pine with a shot of sweet clementine nectar. Simple and tasty, with a little bit of suntan lotion. (6/09)

Dessert (amaro gelato with espresso poured over…I could not possibly love this more) is accompanied by a gated barrier of glasses, all of which are eventually filled. Good heavens.

Perucchi Vermouth Rojo “Gran Reserva” (Spain) – A rich mélange of herbs and cut grass, with a red tinge (not just to the color) that reminds me of a high-quality red wine vinegar minus the acetic acid. Very enticing. (6/09)

Caffo Vecchio Amaro “del Capo” (Calabria) – Unfortunately, I remember little about this liqueur, except a sensation of depth and a better balance of bitter and sweet than is typical (usually, amari tip towards one side or the other). (6/09)

Russo Nocino (Campania) – Pretty straightforward…dark walnut, sweet and sticky, with hints of cocoa and old wood. Very tasty. (6/09)

Aggazzotti Nocino “Notte di S. Giovanni Riserva” (Emilia-Romagna) – Nocino amped up, less with power than with density, like a slow-built stew with layers upon layers of flavor. There’s dark chocolate, Sicilian espresso, even the darkest of black cherries…though perhaps a slight devolvement of the walnut’s central role in such a liqueur. Nonetheless, this is fabulous, and if nocinos received points, this would probably be the beneficiary of a lot of them. (6/09)

Vajra Barolo Chinato (Piedmont) – There’s way too much volatile acidity here, and despite my attempts it remains impenetrable. The less sensitive might do better. (6/09)

Mitchell & Son “Green Spot” Irish Whiskey (Ireland) – Friendly, even “pretty,” yet with smoke and ancient wood enough for enjoyable sipping. It must be said that this was tasted at the end of an awful lot of wine and other, more spirituous beverages, and my attention was not fully upon the glass in front of me. (6/09)

When the bill arrives, only the passito – the one wine we asked for – is on the bill. This is an insane bit of generosity on Levi’s part. Maybe I should slam his employers more often? What’s even crazier is that over the course of the evening, Levi only tells me I’m “wrong” once. Heck, I was ready for a half-dozen more iterations, at least, and it seems grossly out of character. (Maybe after these notes?)

The walk back to the hotel – all the way from Tudor Place to Union Square – is semi-restorative, albeit hard on the feet. Wingtips aren’t made for long post-nocino strolls.

Day 3

It’s hot, humid, and there’s rain on the way. Yet for some reason that can’t possibly be related to the above narrative, I spend rather more of the cool morning in the hotel than I’d planned. Granted, there’s some work to be done, but still.

Of course, the other explanation for lethargy is that today’s the birthday-with-a-zero. Ugh.

I skip breakfast. I skip lunch. Of course, by mid-afternoon I’m ravenous, and a bowl of ramen at a place I can’t remember the name of …it’s a few blocks south of Union Sq., in a place signed with dire warnings about the non-portability of its lunches…is about all I need. I’m caught in a deluge on the way back to the hotel, and umbrella-less, but I don’t really care all that much. It seems like a good metaphor, all things considered.

Back in a jacket, and this time with an uncomfortable tie in the mix, we meet an old friend for a drink at Bar Jamón, which is just a block and a half from our hotel. I’ve passed this more than a few times on the way to and from wherever, and it has looked interesting (though Scott Reiner tells me that Casa Mono, steps away and under the same ownership, is better).

Ameztoi 2008 Getariako Txakolina “Rubentis” (Northwest Spain) – Not strawberries, but a papyrus representation of strawberries on which has been spilled a considerable amount of sharp, frothing soda water. Comes at the palate like the churning maelstrom at the bottom of a very, very small waterfall. Anyone who doesn’t like this may not actually hate wine, but they probably hate life. (6/09)

Unfortunately, a few sips of this drink is about all I can tolerate. Not because of the wine, which I love, but because of the ambient temperature. It is at least ninety degrees in here. There’s not a breath of air-conditioning. People are coming to the door, feeling the furnace, and walking out again. Soon, I’m literally drenched in sweat, and forced to stand outside. So, a warning: all that wine at Bar Jamón? It’s all cooked. I’d be a little wary of the food, too.

We retreat to some dive bar around the corner for a beer. Hey, it’s an improvement. And they have AC.

The actual celebratory (or “celebratory”) dinner is at wine geek nirvana Veritas. We go for the full-bore tasting menu. It’s a lot of rich, high-style French food, and I’m not sure we’re used to eating quite like this anymore. But it’s (almost) all fantastic, the service is as exquisite as any I’ve experienced in the last decade, and of course the wine list and its service can’t really be topped. The only niggle is probably the too-close tables, which make it nearly impossible to entirely ignore one’s neighbors. But this is minor and inconsequential; if you’re coming to Veritas for a romantic evening, you probably care more about the wine than your date anyway. (Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It would depend on the date.)

Roumier 1969 Morey Saint-Denis Clos de la Bussière “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Tentative and tired as the cork is removed, yet there’s a low pulse of strength within, and the finish is surprisingly broad despite the wan aromatics and over-resolved structure. And then, as one hopes, it grows. First in outlines…a bit of wiry structure here, the desiccated residue of red fruit dust there. Then the basic hues – antiqued cherry, soft earth tones – gaining intensity and fullness as succeeding coats are applied. After fundamental vibrancy is achieved, the detail work begins: filigrees of hazelnut and Perigord truffle, a plateau of beautifully mature darker berries, and layers upon layers of rich, fertile earth. As the work continues, the finish not only continues to broaden, but deepens as well, and recapitulations of the primary themes come rumbling from those depths, enveloping the palate in satin memory. It’s so typical as to be a cliché with wines like this, but the last sip is both the best and cloudy with dregs of regret at its finality; to liken the experience to drinking the sunset is to employ more than one metaphor. (6/09)

Peyraud “Domaine Tempier” 1993 Bandol “Cuvée Spéciale” La Tourtine (Provence) – Surprisingly, almost shockingly, primary. Stuffed with sizzling blackberries and plums, black earth, walnuts, and a blizzard of black pepper. The structure has retreated into the background, but it’s still most definitely there. As intense a Bandol as I’ve ever tasted, in flawless balance, but still so, so young. Ten more years? Twenty? Probably more the latter. (6/09)

There’s also a glass of 1999 Beerenauslese that I don’t bother to remember, even though it’s quite excellent.

The walk home? Only a few blocks of foot-floating bliss. It turned out to be a pretty darn OK birthday after all.

Day 4

This morning, there’s supposed to be a trip to Katz’s for giant towers of pastrami. Instead, there’s a fruit salad from the deli next to the hotel, tea, and a cab to the airport. My next meal might not be until 2010. Perhaps on my next birthday, though I think this one will be hard to top.