Saturday, February 13, 2010

Great Expectations

I love the anticipation of opening a great bottle, and Tuesday night found me drinking a bottle I had been thinking about since August.

Back in August, me and my friend Mark were eating and drinking at Rootstock, one of my favorite spots in the City for honest, unpretentious food and booze. It has a small but compelling wine list; it's the kind of place that has Savoie blanc and Raffault by the glass. That night I spied a trophy of sorts (not a Screaming Eagle / Opus One trophy- a wine drinker's / non-hedge fund manager's trophy) in the form of a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo.

Bartolo Mascarello was a lion whose words and actions influenced winemakers and wine drinkers around the world. Although I don't claim to be his biographer, I think it's fair to write that he believed there is only one way to make Barolo: the way it has always been made, without regard to fashion, technology or consumer preferences. The man died in 2005, and his production was always small scale. I wouldn't call this a once-in-a-lifetime bottle (I forked over for a bottle of the recently released 2004), but certainly no more than a handful of times will I ever taste these wines. Very few bottles reach retail shelves in the U.S., and, since no more will be made by his hand, the supply will only diminish.

Mark is a Notre Dame alumni and fan (whether it's advisable to associate with such people is a topic for another post), and on this night in August we were discussing the prospects of the Irish football team for the upcoming season. Mark, being the kind of guy he is, said that Notre Dame would definitely be invited to a BSC bowl game at the end of the season. Needless to say, I had some doubts about that, and I'm sure at this point I don't have to tell you where this post is going.

Fast forward to the blizzard that hit Chicago on Tuesday, and Mark and I, sheltered from the storm at Rootstock, are set to settle our bet by uncorking the 99 Mascarello (note that another Mascarello estate, Giuseppe, also makes darn fine wine nearby). Mark arrived first, and immediately set the bottle to air in a decanter. We eased into the night with bubbles (Mark a beer, me a splendid Godme Champagne), and ordered some food (near flawless pate, among other things).

I poured a glass and sniffed. For about 15 minutes. And there wasn't much there. It was wine all right, but the nose didn't show the magic I expected. No matter, this wine was a relative baby, and we had all night to let it show its stuff.

Sadly, the stuff never came, at least not for me on that night. It was fine to drink, of course, and it did reveal itself more as the night went on, but there was no ah-ha, no paradigm shift, no smell that pops into my brain days later (it's always the smell, by the way, that comes back to me, not the taste).

The bottle may have been too young to drink, regardless of how long we left it open (the deep sleep, some would say), or it may have needed many more hours or even days of air to hit its height. It may have been an off bottle, varied for whatever reason. Or it's possible (however doubtful) that I don't like this guy's wines- it was my first after all. Maybe a combination of the foregoing.

But none of this business about the wine really matters. We had a high time that night, Chicago silent around us, as we made friends with the few other lonely souls holed-up at this sanctuary in Humboldt Park. I'll remember that bet, the anticipation for that bottle, and the snow for a long time to come.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Crazy Whites and the Wine Lover's Favorite Meal

I wasn't the first person to discover the Jura, but it seems to this uneducated observer that its wines enjoyed obscurity until recently when the wine press seized on it like never before. Such attention has the happy result of increasing consumer demand, which means wider availability; however, the region produces precious little juice, which, for you non-economics majors, means higher prices.

So it goes.

I was overjoyed (seriously, overjoyed) recently to discover the first bottle of Domaine de Montbourgeau I've seen in Chicago at Wine Discount Center. Hailing from l'Etoile in the southern reaches of the Jura, this estate, in the hands of Nicole Deriaux, is a benchmark of the region. Made from Chardonnay (not that I ever could have guessed), Edward Behr reports that this basic bottling from 2004 fermented in tank, then spent three years in barrels and large casks.

This wine may shock the uninitiated. Often likened to sherry, certain winemaking practices in the Jura oxidize the wine, giving it sharpness, but also welcome cleanliness and precision, especially for chardonnay. I can therefore add the Jura to my list of places from which I enjoy expressions of chardonnay, bringing the grand total to two.

The oracles call the Jura verdant land of trenchermen. I don't know what that means, but it yields some crazy good whites. I'm a sucker for a hand-sealed wax cap.

If you're interested in the Jura, you must order AoE 72. And if you don't know the joys of AoE, simply subscribe. The high tariff is worth every penny.

What to eat with such a unique beverage? It may not be original, but whenever I'm in doubt about appropriate fare for a particular wine, we usually end up feasting on roast chicken. Everything from mid-weight whites to mid-weight reds show well next to a juicy, properly seasoned bird. It's an important recipe in any wine geek's repertoire.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

DJ! Musica!

A brief pause from our usual programming to note a powerful commonality I've observed the last few years: nearly every wine geek I know is also passionate about music. Rock star importer Kermit Lynch makes records. Rock star Italian wine blogger Jeremy Parzen is an actual rock star with his own French band (don't ask). Our new friends Lars and Kelly are both talented musicians. Saignee, McDuff, Eric Asimov, all think and write about music. And I could go on.

Is this a coincidence? I doubt it. Whether cooking or eating or drinking, music is the perfect accoutrement. I'm admittedly biased against television, but unless we're talking football, beer and barbecue, there's virtually no programming to enhance your dining experience. Consider, by way of contrast, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Great Lake Swimmers. What we have there is cultural, thoughtful, expressive, unique. Sounds a little bit like the best characteristics of food and wine come to think of it.

So, if music isn't already part of your daily routine, the next time you prepare and sit down for a meal, don't forget to put a record on the hi-fi (that's high fidelity). You could listen to a mix cd, hit shuffle on the ipod, or type something into Pandora, but why not instead listen to a classic album in its entirety? You wouldn't hit shuffle on the genius of Grant Achatz or Bartolo Mascarello, now would you?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Road Less Traveled

I'm a sucker for obscure wine regions. If I see a bottle on a shelf from a region I've never heard of, I'm probably going to buy it. And why not? Maybe that place has wicked good dirt. Hence my joy with these two bottles, solid wines with close ties to important regions, but which are mostly off the grid. The best thing about unknown wines is the price- who's going to plunk down good cash for a shot in the dark (other than your spendthrift author)?

First up a 2008 Menetou-Salon from Domaine Jean Teiller, imported by Free Run, LLC. This Sauvignon is not as stately as those from its neighbors to the east in Sancerre and Pouilly, but it's fine for a workaday blanc, precise with attractive citrus and mineral flavors, and proper acidity. Purchased from Garagiste.

Writing of Menetou-Salon, this is a good opportunity to heap praise on the wines of the Loire Valley. I started my great, big, financially irresponsible wine obsession there, and I've never really left. For me, this is the place to start any figurative wine journey through France. And I expect those who start there will return frequently.

My next offering is from Burgundy in general and the Cote d'Or (Volnay) in specific. Not exactly off the grid, huh? Well, what if I told you it's made from Gamay rather than Pinot Noir (actually there is some Pinot in there, but we'll come back to that). Then, Gamay + Burgundy = Beaujolais, right? Not this time.

This 2006 Bourgogne Passetoutgrain from Domaine Michel LaFarge, imported by Connoisseur Wines (a Becky Wasserman Selection) is good to find. Made from a minimum one-third Pinot Noir and Gamay (according to the oracles) this wine recalls youthful, thirst quenching reds you would find in a Parisian bistro, but it also channels nuanced dirt from the famed Cote d'Or. For less than $20, it's well worth exploring the unknown.

Always Worth It

It's shit like this that keeps me popping corks. We opened an '07 J.J. Prum Riesling Kabinett as one of our selections for dinner last night at Bon Soiree with our good friends Jason, Ben and Whitney. The word balance is overused in wine writing, but this magnificent collision of tastes and textures has zen-like harmony. Close your eyes, focus, and you'll realize all is well in the world. I purchase Prum reflexively. Like Lopez de Heredia, I see it, give a passing glance at the price, reach, and buy. I'm apprehensive and distracted if I don't have a bottle at home. And the worst part is it will improve in the bottle indefinitely. What then is an addict to do? Drink? Hold?


No picture. Please, just go to the store. The Binny's South Loop location usually has a good selection.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A couple recent bottles

Wines like these are right up my alley.

Although people who spend their free time thinking about wine (nerds) like to debate the utility of Aligote, I've long found it interesting, I'm sure in part due to its relative obscurity. The Bouzeron AOC is the northernmost land in the Cote Chalonnaise, just south of the famed Cote d'Or (home to legendary expressions of Chardonnay). Made from Aligote, the whites of Bouzeron certainly aren't life-changing, but they can be simple and pleasant, especially with appropriate fare. Lesser examples may be nondescript and a little too round for my liking, but in the right hands I find them distinctive and refreshing. Best of all, the freight is cheap, with top examples, from the likes of famed estate A&P De Villaine, maybe around $25, and solid examples significantly less.

The 2007 from Domaine Rois Mages (Anne-Sophie Debavelaere, proprietaire), imported by Wine Traditions, Ltd., hit the spot with strong acidity, minerality and citrus. I purchased it from Garagiste. For some reason drinking this bottle made me think of pinot blanc (not usually a flattering comparison), but I learned from the oracles that that might not be a coincidence since Aligote is a member of the "greater pinot family," whatever that means.

I don't drink a lot of wine from Spain (with the joyous exception of the riojas of R. Lopez de Heredia, an iconic winery the bottles of which I try to always keep close at hand), but this region in general and estate in specific speaks to me. Rather than attempting to summarize great writing, read all about it for yourself here.

This 2007 vina do burato from D. Ventura (Ribeira Sacra D.O., mencia grape, imported by De Maison Selections) had a near perfect balance of fruit and earth, with supporting acidity running throughout. I bought this on super sale at Wine Discount Center for $10, for which this wine scores a big win in the value column. I wish I had more of it. Buying wine before tasting is a no win situation- if you buy only a little, it will be good, and you will regret not buying more. If you buy a lot, it will be mediocre, and find its way into a pot on the stove.

January in Chicago makes me crave food like this: Buffalo and Pancetta Meat Loaf with a side of mac and cheese, which the D. Ventura cleaned up nicely. It's the simple things in life.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I've said it before and I will say (write) it again. Pound for pound (dollar for dollar) Avec is the best restaurant in Chicago.

We were treated to a rare dinner out last night, sans Melrose, and we spent it at Avec, not only because of its proximity to our home (about a five iron), but because we love it. We chose it over other good options (including Sepia, which has one of my favorite lists in the City).

What's the occasion for dining at Avec? Big night out? Casual bite with friends? Something in between? All are possible and probable at Avec.

We make friends every time we eat there, and last night was no exception, when we befriended Matt and Chelsea, a disarming young couple from Detroit and Georgia, respectively. Matt works at the Atwood Cafe, a destination for Daniel Burnham fans if not food cognoscenti, and informed us that it offers killer Sunday brunch. We intend to visit there soon.

Avec's kitchen did not disappoint. Smelts atop a creamy but restrained spinach romesco, finished with speck, began our restoration on a frigid Chicago night. Crispy burgundy snail polenta with lemon aioli, chervil and chives really struck a cord with us, delicious and balanced. To cap the meal we devoured braised pork cheeks with blood sausage, barley, cabbage and artichokes. The chemistry of Koren Grieveson's dishes demands attention- always unique and nuanced.

The wine list is adventurous by almost any measure, as VDPs and IGTs abound. We chose a Calabrian rosso to warm our souls- a Ciro Rosso Classico from Fattoria San Francesco. Calabria is a special place for us- we visited in 2008, and stayed in a beautiful seaside village called Tropea. The region is one of many in Southern Italy that are largely unknown, although some top flight restaurants in the U.S., like A16 in San Francisco and Convivio in New York, bring well deserved attention to Southern Italian cuisine and wine. Based on what we read before the trip, we were expecting a barren landscape; quite the opposite, it's vibrant and apparently bountiful, but rural and poor, which probably leads to its reputation as no-man's land. The people were very kind, and it's the only place we've been in Italy where we didn't encounter anyone who spoke english.

From Gaglioppo grapes, this is the kind of wine I want on my table most nights of the week- simple, satisfying, enough character to keep you coming back. Ciro is probably the best known DOC in Calabria, and home to Librandi, a notable producer that's well distributed in the States (I saw some at Whole Foods a while back). I think Ciro Rosso Classico is a relatively recent designation, but I haven't researched it. Perhaps the good doctor can confirm or disabuse me.


Not only is Iowa home to the BCS bound Iowa Hawkeyes, it's also proud to produce some of the finest artisan food and drink in the country. La Quercia meats from Norwalk, Iowa (not far from a little town called Adel) can be found on top restaurant menus from coast to coast, and Templeton Rye (Templeton, Iowa) is riding the wave of small batch whisky (whiskey) to national acclaim. You'll be happy to have the latter the next time you're mixing a pitcher of Manhattans.

Pastoral, a top-flight Chicago cheese shop (with prices to match), recently introduced me to another Iowa treasure: Prairie Breeze Cheddar from the Milton Creamery. Milton is in southeast Iowa, near the Missouri (Mizzura to some) border, a ways past Eddyville, Iowa, where my parents grew up. As the name might suggest, this creamy cheddar is rich and smooth; although not as formidable as the great English farmhouse cheddars, it made for a satisfying winter's supper served with a hunk of bread and squash soup.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Rockin' New Year

Six week-old Melrose wasn't really up for a blow-out New Year's Eve. We rang in 2010 (at 10 p.m., still in '09) with Melrose and my mom, kicked-off by fat-free pork rillettes, followed by a delicious beet and radicchio salad with goat cheese and pistachios, and capped by braised pork chops with tomatoes, anchovies and rosemary. I overcooked the pork chops (nothing worse than dry pork- it's fatal), but the piquant sauce was a great foil, served alongside polenta. This is a good time to point out that The New York Times proffers some of our favorite recipes. Required reading.

The celebratory sparkler was De Vallois Grande Cuvee from Saumur. Alert readers recall that I'm not an authority on sparkling wine, but this one served our meal ably. Thanks to our good friends Matt and Sidney for the bubbles.