Monthly Archives: July 2012

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 2

28 July 2012

COURSE 3: Costières de Nîmes rosé

I had a very relaxing lunch one day at Parc, a resolutely traditional French brasserie on Rittenhouse Square. Perhaps it’s a silly way to choose a pairing, but when I eat salmon, I tend to pick a wine equally as pink. Dry rosé and salmon just seem made for each other.

As I was waiting for my Provençal-style baked salmon with ratatouille and cous-cous, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the well-dressed young ladies at the table next to me:

“Your dog doesn’t have a middle name?”

“Well, I think it’s normal for a dog not to have a middle name. But can I just say, I would never hire a dog walker as hot as yours.”

It would take a wine of great interest and vivacity to draw my attention away from such an exchange, but the 2011 Mas de Bressades, a rosé blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault from the Costières de Nîmes, succeeded in doing just that. Sandwiched between the southern Provençal cities of Nîmes and Arles, the Costières de Nîmes appellation produces wines “closer to those just over the river in the southern Côtes du Rhône” than in adjacent Languedoc, notes The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rosés in particular tend to be “good-value dry wines with a delightful color and ripe fruit,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and so it was with this excellent example.



Philadelphia Degustation – Part 1

25 July 2012

Philadelphia may mix a mean cocktail, but the wine scene isn’t too shabby either. I was delighted to discover that most restaurants I visited had something unusual on their wine-by-the-glass menus, and I availed myself of the opportunity to try a number of deliciously odd vintages.

For your vicarious pleasure, a six-course tasting menu complete with wine pairings:

COURSE 1: Languedoc Blanc de Blancs

To start, a non-vintage Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blancs from France’s Languedoc region, sampled at Le Bec Fin. A wine from this rather humble region seemed almost out of place at this relentlessly formal restaurant, where a bust of Marie Antoinette peers unironically at diners through cascades of crystal chandeliers. Even today, inconsistent Languedoc produces vast seas of boring vin ordinaire as well as exciting terroir-focused varietals (unusual in a country known mostly for blends).

In keeping with Languedoc fashion, this varietal sparkling wine is 100% Chardonnay, as indicated by the words “Blanc de Blancs” on the label. My initial feelings of suspicion were quickly assuaged. The wine had a rather green aroma, and it started tight and tart on the palate before opening up into flavors of apples and yeast. Bubbles felt prickly but elegantly small. Delicious. It cut right through the richness of some seared Hudson Valley foie gras, making for an excellent pairing. Even so, it’s hard to get over the eye-popping $19 per-flute price tag. That’s the average price for an entire bottle, according to Wine Searcher! Well, I suppose Le Bec Fin has to pay for all that gilt somehow.

COURSE 2: Grüner Veltliner

Next, a refreshing glass of Austria’s most famous variety, Grüner Veltliner, sipped at farm-to-table sensation Talula’s Garden. This food-friendly variety has a murky and fascinating history. Genetic testing revealed that one of its parents was Traminer, but the other parent remained a mystery for some time, until (at least according to Wikipedia) its other parent was found in the year 2000. Only a single vine of this parent variety remained, barely clinging to life in an overgrown pasture. Apparently, there are plans to try cultivating this mystery variety in the near future, and I can’t help but feel pretty darn excited about that.



My New Favorite Bar In The World

21 July 2012

I’ve had a lot of cocktails in my day — a lot. A lot a lot. But I can count on one hand the drinks that make me long to return to the place where I first sipped them. At the very top of that list is not the Pomada in Menorca, nor the Kir Royale in Burgundy, but the Bijou Cocktail in romantic, exotic Philadelphia. This jewel of a drink was served to me in a bar down an unpromising alley, tucked behind a Mexican restaurant. Not even the concierge of the nearby Rittenhouse Hotel had heard of it.

It’s called The Ranstead Room, and though I’ve only had one drink there, it’s currently my favorite bar in the world. To reach this cocktail hideaway, turn west down Ranstead Street from 20th, and look for the black door with the two R’s on your left. The door person may request that you wait a little while, but these cocktails are worth it.

Once inside the atmospherically dim space, you might not feel surprised to see Don Draper with his mistress in one of the intimate red leather booths. In the center of the room, a striking black and amber crystal chandelier illuminates a series of gilt-framed pin-up paintings around the wall, covered in a black and cream damask wallpaper. Faux snakeskin-upholstered chairs line the bar, staffed by true cocktail craftsmen.

The retro cocktail menu had an enticing list of vintage cocktails, all priced at $12. How could I choose among a Roman Highball (amaro, ginger, lime, soda), an Arsenic & Old Lace (gin, vermouth, violette, absinthe) and an Antilles (Cognac, vermouth, orange flower water)? Fortunately, I didn’t have to.



St. Laurent In Chicago

18 July 2012

I sampled an array of fantastic wines at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting held in Chicago this past April, but nothing impressed me so much as the luscious red wines made from St. Laurent. This relative of Pinot Noir originated in France centuries ago, perhaps in the Alsace region, but it grows particularly well in eastern and southeastern Austria. Not that we would ever know.

This variety, despite “producing deep-colored, velvety reds with sufficient concentration — provided yields are limited — to merit aging in oak and then the bottle,” remains essentially unknown in the United States (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). Precious few restaurant wine lists have a St. Laurent on the menu. Indeed, it’s still rare to see many wines of any kind from Austria, despite the rising popularity of Grüner Veltliner, that tart, peppery white for which Austria has become well-known.

We’re really missing out. After tasting several excellent St. Laurents at Austria Uncorked, I was hooked. Determined to add a few St. Laurent varietals to my wine rack, I paid a visit to Binny’s. Although the service is laughably awful, the selection of wine is unequaled in the city (or almost anywhere, for that matter). Binny’s even boasts an entire “Austria” section. Unfortunately, it’s dominated by Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, with barely a red in sight.

(UPDATE: Binny’s happened to see this blog post and took pains to find out where their service went wrong. Our correspondence gives me great hope that their customer service has markedly improved.)

I found but one lone St. Laurent, a 2010 Sattler St. Laurent from Burgenland, a large wine region along Austria’s Hungarian border. It cost $18, which is honestly a little more than I usually spend, but I had a feeling it would be worth it. And in any case, what choice did I have?



The Best Exotic Mango Martini

14 July 2012

With some delicious Thai delivery coming our way, and no Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Torrontés or even Moscato chilling in the fridge, I had but minutes to come up with a cocktail pairing. Something exotic and aromatic was called for, and in this heat, something very refreshing.

I took stock. Just as home chefs sometimes create something delicious out of various bits of leftovers, so I hoped to craft a cocktail from ingredients readily at hand that needed to be used up.

The coldest thing I had was a mostly empty bottle of Sobieski Vodka which had been cluttering up the freezer for months. Time for a little housecleaning. Vodka may not exactly be odd, but it works as a wonderful base on which to layer other more unusual ingredients. What else did I want to get rid of? Perhaps that half-finished bottle of mango juice… Ah — and that box of fresh basil leaves that have but a day or two left before they turn black. Fresh herbs can really kick a drink up to the next level. And how old was that bottle of lychee liqueur in the refrigerator door? A cocktail began to take shape.

I tried combining the ingredients listed above, but the resulting concoction ended up to be too sharp, too astringent. Fortunately I had a lemon in my fruit bowl, and a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice really helped round out the flavor. It tasted sweet, tart and vaguely exotic, with whispers of the basil and lychee. It was just the thing to pair with the Thai food as we huddled around our air conditioner.

While it can be great fun to experiment with leftovers, there’s something to be said for making a recipe that’s tried and true. Here’s what worked for me:

The Best Exotic Mango Martini:

2 parts vodka (I like Sobieski — it’s an excellent value for the money — but use whatever brand you prefer)

1 part mango juice (100% juice if possible)

1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

2 or 3 fresh basil leaves, depending on their size

Small splash of lychee liqueur (I used Soho Lychee Liqueur, which is available at Binny’s for $25)

Juice a lemon, and use that as the measure of one part (one lemon will make two cocktails). Add all the ingredients above to a shaker with several cubes of ice. Be sure not to add too much lychee liqueur — it can very easily overpower a cocktail. Just a tiny splash should do the trick. Shake vigorously, so that the basil leaves bruise and release their flavor. Strain into two martini glasses, and if you want to get really fancy, garnish with a basil leaf.



Time To Break Out The Pink

11 July 2012

When 90 degrees feels like relief, there’s nothing to do but break out a bottle of rosé. It’s almost never a mistake to turn to one of Provence’s renowned pinks, but fine dry rosé can come from any number of wine regions these days. While shopping at In Fine Spirits recently, I came across a bottle of rosé Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and since I didn’t even know rosé was allowed in the Abruzzo DOC, I couldn’t resist snapping it up.

But “Montepulciano” can be a confusing term in Italy. In this case, if refers to a late-ripening grape variety grown throughout much of central Italy, most notably in the southeastern province of Abruzzo along the Adriatic Sea. “Montepulciano” also refers to a celebrated wine town in Tuscany, but the wine there is made mostly from Sangiovese, not Montepulciano.

Now that we’ve got our Montepulcianos straight, let’s investigate further. Abruzzo, at least according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, seems to be a region of great but unrealized potential: “Despite the presence of one of Italy’s better grape varieties Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, despite the warm climate, and despite favorable vineyard sites where hills descend towards the Adriatic and enjoy the benefits of summer heat and solar radiation from the sea, most of the region’s production is undistinguished…” Why? Because Abruzzo has ill-conceived DOCs promoting quantity over quality.

And how does rosé fare in this potentially excellent terroir? Does it shine through in spite of the poorly designed regulations? Official opinion is split. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that “A lighter style called cerasuolo exists for cherry-pink wine with fresh fruit, but it is seldom as exciting [as red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo].” But The World Atlas of Wine praises Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, calling it “satisfyingly full-blooded.”

I’m delighted to say that the one I found at In Fine Spirits, the 2011 Valle Reale “Vigne Nuove” Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, turned out to be satisfying indeed. The winery uses a “low-spurred cordon” vine training method, which is notable because it results in significantly lower yields (and therefore more concentrated flavors) than the overhead “tendone” system strongly encouraged by Abruzzo’s regulations back in the 1970s.

A beautiful deep salmon pink, this wine had an enticing strawberry nose and bright flavors of watermelon and bubble gum. On the palate, the wine moved from fruit to prickly acids to bracing minerals. It tasted especially zesty when paired with a simple dinner of beans, rice and fresh vegetables.

Once again, a risk on an unknown rosé pays off. I don’t have any hard evidence to back this theory up, but I suspect that because rosés tend to be less popular than reds or whites, they are often a labor of love for a winemaker. The pink sugar-water of White Zinfandel aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to go wrong with a rosé this summer.


2011 Valle Reale “Vigne Nuove” Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo: Fruity, dry, juicy, minerally and beautifully pink. In short, just about everything a good rosé should be. Perfect for a picnic, a barbeque or a light summer dinner.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this bottle for $13 at In Fine Spirits in Chicago. If you don’t mind abysmal service, you can also find it at Binny’s.


Austria’s Other Whites

7 July 2012

This ongoing heat wave calls for refreshing white wines, and you can hardly go wrong by turning to Austria. Even just picturing this little Alpine country makes me feel cooler; centuries-old castles and tidy thick-walled villages watching over steep vineyards, above which the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews float.

In recent years, Austria has become justly famous (at least in some circles) for its high-quality and food-friendly Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, both of which regularly make appearances on restaurant wine lists. I love these, and I tasted some fantastic examples at a recent tasting of Austrian wines.

But of course, I can’t resist going even deeper into obscurity. If you see a well-priced Austrian Riesling or Grüner, buy it; it will likely be an excellent value. But if you happen to find an Austrian white made with some other variety, grab that sucker and hold on with two fists. Some examples:

Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler, 2011: The late-ripening Rotgipfler variety — the result of a cross between Roter Veltliner and Traminer — flourishes in the Thermenregion’s warm vineyards south of Vienna. This pale straw-colored example had a sweet pineapply aroma and a bit of prickle on the tongue. It turned surprisingly (but not unpleasantly) sour at the end, making it easy to pair with a range of foods.

Sattlerhof Steirische Klassik Gelber Muskateller, 2011: The Sattlerhof estate enjoys a particularly picturesque setting in the hills of the small Südsteiermark region bordering Slovenia. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, many of the area’s best producers belong to the Steirische Klassik association, which works to ensure that wines represent the local terroir to its full potential. “Gelber Muskateller” is simply Muscat Blanc, one of the oldest known (and to my mind, one of the most delicious) wine grape varieties. It looked almost clear in the glass, with just a hint of yellow, and I loved its exquisitely floral aroma of overripe pineapple and lily-of-the-valley. Its juicy and almost tart flavor profile was not over sweet, and again, it would be sure to work well with all sorts of light summer recipes.

Sattlerhof Trockenbeerenauslese, 2010: Don’t be intimidated by the name (pronounced “Traw-ken-bear-en-owss-lay-seh). This typically German compound word indicates that the fruit used to make this wine is as ripe as ripe can be, with flavors and sugars concentrated by Noble Rot. If you like Sauternes or Tokaji Aszu, this wine is right up your alley. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. Crafted with Sauvignon Blanc, this deeply golden wine had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.


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