Saturday, September 28, 2013

No Oyster is Safe - Celebrating Muscadet Month

This Muscadet from Claude Branger is one of the best white wines I've had recently. It defies any notion that Muscadets are simple quaffing wines. The energy of this wine is electric.

The number of producers making Muscadet as good as Claude Branger's is almost nil. There's probably less than a dozen, perhaps even less, which is shocking because Muscadet produces more wines than any other appellation in the Loire.

Claude and his son, Sebastien, farm their vineyards manually, utilizing sustainable and organic methods (they will be fully certified by 2016) being a long-time member of Terra Vitis. This means harvest is manual as well, which is not a common practice in Muscadet. Their flagship Muscadet called Terroir les Gras Moutons (the Fat Sheep vineyard) comes from one of the best sites in the appellation. The rocky granite soil here is thin, between 6 to 14 inches deep, with streaks of amphibolite, a greenish metamorphic rock. The vines were planted between 1930 and 1986, and average more than 50 years old. The meager soil and the old vines give naturally low yields, averaging 45 hl/ha, producing fruit with remarkable concentration

The wine spends up to 14 months on its lees in underground tanks resulting in a wine of extraordinary richness and complexity. The 2010 vintage is newly released and tasting it recently was a huge treat. A magnificent vintage that should not be missed by anyone who loves wine. I assure you that this is worth experiencing for $16. Keep some and enjoy a bottle or two over the next 5 years.

Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur lie "Terroir les Gras Moutons", Claude Branger 2010 $16.00 (click to buy!)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

One of Burgundy's Greatest Bargains

Standing on the hill of Corton looking southwest (thus, the vineyards are facing southeast), I took the above photo less than a week ago. In the middle is one of the most interestingly shaped vineyard you would ever see in Burgundy. This is the premier cru Ile des Vergelesses in Pernand Vergelesses. It's a tongue-shaped island floating between Aux Vergelesses below and Savigny-les-Beaune above. On this overcast day, perhaps it's not too obvious, but its position on the midslope before the slope steeply angles up and dips down--out of the shadow cast by the massive Corton hill--allows it to receive the maximum light, hence the brighter sheen on its surface.

Because of this perfect exposure, on great vintages and if well made the red Burgundy premier cru Ile des Vergelesses is like an extension of Corton in quality. The fruit is intense and dark, with a touch of violets, and the structure is firm and elegant. These attributes allow it to age well. But the price at under $50 makes it one of Burgundy's greatest bargains.

I was tasting with Lise Pavelot at her family's domaine in Pernand-Vergelesses their wonderful range of wines. The lineup was mainly 2011s, but she thought of revisiting the 2009 Pernand-Iles des Vergelesses as it has been a while since she had that, and for me it's been over a year. We were quite blown away by it. On release it was closed and tight but now its brilliant potential is obvious.

When the Pernand-Ile des Vergelesses is this good then it's easy to understand why many consider it worthy of grand cru status. Lise Pavelot describes it this way:

Illuminated by the early morning sun and caressed by its low angled rays when it lays itself down behind the Bois de Noël hill, where it sweetly comes to rest, the Ile des Vergelesses tends toward velvet, elegance and sophisticated lace.

Pernand-Vergelesses Premier Cru Ile des Vergelesses, Domaine Pavelot 2009 $47.00 (click to buy!)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Alexander Jules Sherries

Alex Russan of Alexander Jules came over to the store last Friday to present the debut release of his brilliant Sherries. It was quite a treat.

Sherry is bottled in mass quantities from large and small soleras to satisfy tapas bar crowds and Sherry aficionados around the world. This is how Sherry is typically produced, but it's not the only route.

A miniscule quantity of Sherry comes from Almacenista soleras--tiny family-owned soleras consisting of less than 100 butts or barrels, with some as low as 10. Instead of being blended with other soleras, these Almacenista Sherries are bottled individually, with the Almacenista solera identified on the label. This artisanal practice is about as old as Sherry itself, and, I would guess, was how Sherry production began.

A more recent phenomenon in Sherry production is barrel selection. This is microscopic. We're talking of not much more than a thousand bottles or less. What makes this practice different is it's not undertaken by a bodega or established Sherry shipper. A person outside the industry, a Sherry aficionado, with a keen eye for where the best barrels lie and possessing an excellent palate is the one usually behind this kind of micro-lot production.

Equipo Navazos is the most well-known barrel-selection producer, the darling of hip somms and wine writers, with a cult following to boot. Its Sherries are spectacular, with a powerful, concentrated style.

A new barrel-selection player is Alexander Jules. Alex Russan, who established this company, is a Sherry aficionado but whose background is coffee buying. He simply utilized his trained palate in another way, picking barrels, instead of coffee,  in some of the best bodegas in Jerez.

Alex's Sherries veer more towards finesse, imbued with intense flavors that feel light on the palate. Acidity is also high and keeps the Sherries crisp and fresh. These are relaxed and easy to drink Sherries, beautifully balanced and quite refined. Folks new to Sherries could appreciate their style and experienced drinkers would admire their depth and elegance.

Jerez Fino 22/85
This comes from Sanchez Romate's Celestino solera. A solera, Alex says, that is seldom used, thus, the Fino's age is high, 8 years-old, whereas a typical Fino is 4 years. He picked out 22 barrels out of the 85 barrels in the solera for his Fino's saca. It was bottled in June 2013, like his other Sherries. From a freshly opened bottle the Fino takes several minutes to fully open in the glass. Floral, with a deep straw color. The flavors are crisp, light, fresh, and absolutely thirst-quenching. My thinking was I could drain a full bottle of this as long as the food keeps coming.

Manzanilla 17/71
This comes from the great Sanlúcar de Barrameda producer, Bodegas Argüeso. It is a barrel selection of the San León solera, which is the source of Argüeso's serious Manzanilla Reserva. The longer aging results in a deep color. A powerful, richly flavored Manzanilla. Its good acidity and salinity make it easy and perfect to pair with a variety of dishes. My favorite would be shellfish.

We carried Bodegas Argüeso Sherries before when it was imported by Jose Pastor and distributed by Farm Wine Imports/Louis Dressner. I'm happy to hear from Alex Russan that he is now their importer.

Amontillado 6/26
Again we have a Sherry from Bodegas Argüeso in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It began as a 5-year-old Manzanilla Fino under flor. After further fortification it was aged another 5 years without flor. It is soft and gentle, never overpowering despite its spectacular and dramatic depth, complexity, and length. I find this style irresistible and seductive. You don't have to serve turtle soup with this Amontillado as in Babette's Feast. I find this satisfying to enjoy on its own, pleasuring in its layers of flavors. And if you get hungry, a plate of carpaccio or tataki, either beef or fish, would be very nice.

We will have Alexander Jules Sherries available for sale when they arrive this September 18th.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sherry Vinegars of Sanchez Romate: I would drizzle this on chicharon

Aged for 3 years, the Solera Reserva Sherry Vinegar of Sanchez Romate from 100% Palomino grapes offers intense pungent vinegar flavors with bright, dried fruit Sherry extracts. The salinity is unmistakable, making this not only dressing for salads but a most deadly flavor enhancer to shellfish and especially to chicharon!

This is super intense and concentrated. Beware of smelling it closely as the powerful aromas might gag you. A drop goes a long way on this. I would put this on meats, especially roast lamb and steaks. Aged for 3 years with 15% Pedro Ximénez and 85% Palomino. The sweet, fruity, caramel layer makes it balsamic-like and tames the sharp acidity of this powerful, concentrated vinegar for the aficionado.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Bite and A Sip Before the Giants-Red Sox Ball Game

An American Burgundy producer based in Beaune since 1997, Alex Gambal works with some very good growers across the Cote d'Or, making small lots of wine from well-chosen sites. Aware that he is an outsider, he aims to produce Burgundy that offers value and accessibility to his largely American audience in a style that is as pure as possible.

I started buying Alex Gambal's wines in the late 1990s. He started as a negociant-eleveur, buying finished wine for elevage and sometimes fruit. He worked at a facility in Beaune near the train station. In 2005 he purchased a spacious old cellar along Beaune's peripherique that allowed him to expand his range. I visited him right after he moved in, and there I also met his young cellar master, Fabrice Laronze, who worked with him for 10 years before starting Domaine des Terres de Velle.

In 2011 Alex Gambal made history by purchasing a small parcel of Batard-Motrachet, making him the first American and non-Frenchman to own a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy. He also owns parcels around Volnay and in Puligny Premier Cru Les Ensegnières. Despite Alex's considerable exploits in Burgundy the American press has not covered him much, thus most Burgundy drinkers aren't aware of his wines and how long this American has been making terrific Burgundies, including from prestigious grands crus vineyards.

One of the first Alex Gambal wines we carried at the store were 1998 Charmes-Chambertin and Mazy-Chambertin grands crus, including half-bottles. We sold these half-bottles for less than $50 and they gathered dust on the shelf!

So I just kept the demi-bouteilles for myself and opened one of the 1998 Mazy-Chambertin recently at Coco500 prior to heading to AT&T Park to watch the Giants-Red Sox game . At 15 years of age it was drinking gorgeous. At first I thought it needed drinking up--but as it often happens with great wine when given a chance to open up--after the last pour and still the wine never lost freshness and showed more structure I thought this was solid vin de garde.

A bow to traditional pairings, I guess, I ordered a plate of duck liver crostini to go with the Mazy. Toothsome as this was, it was easily surpassed by a bowl of tripe and lima beans--a genius dish, which I can't remember seeing on the menu before. It was unforgettably stupendous with Alex Gambal's half-bottle of 1998 Burgundy. On a quick meal before a ball game, I was not expecting to be blown away like this.

There was a full moon--a blue moon--rising over San Francisco's AT&T Park this night at the ball game. My team, the Red Sox, won. But my mind was still on the tripe and red Burgundy.