France – Other

A Taste Of Cognac History

24 November 2013

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacIf I had to choose just one spirit to consume for the rest of my life, I would be crushed, but after I got over the initial shock of being forced to make such a difficult decision, I would choose cognac. I’ve had the fortune to taste quite a few cognacs, including the most famous brands, delicious small-production gems and even a couple of cognacs which literally brought me to tears. If you think cognac is just for aging aristocrats or rap stars, you’re missing out on an exquisite beverage that need not be burdensomely expensive to be thoroughly satisfying.

I’m pleased to drink just about any cognac, really, but I get especially excited when I have the opportunity to taste an unusual cognac. The Château de Beaulon 7-Year Cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche.

Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes (you can read more about cognac production and age designations in my post here). In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano).

There were a number of reasons farmers turned from Folle Blanche to Ugni Blanc. According to Cognac by Kyle Jarrad, Folle Blanche “tend[s] to suffer from rot when grafted onto American roots,” and grafting was the solution to the phylloxera epidemic. Just as important, Cognac producers “don’t want to start the process with a wine that is highly aromatic… Better to start the aging with the more acidic wine that Ugni Blanc gives,” to leave more room for the oak barrels to flavor the spirit.

Almost all cognacs you drink nowadays are distilled mostly or entirely from Ugni Blanc. Distilling a cognac from Folle Blanche instead is a reactionary move; it’s a throwback to the cognacs of the 19th century and earlier. In fact, according to the Château de Beaulon website, “Beaulon has remained faithful to the region’s traditional 16th-century vine stocks: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Montils for Cognac.”

Though it is possible to purchase cognacs with at least part of the blend dating back a century or more, such as the extravagantly beautiful Hennessy Paradis Impérial, those seeking a taste of cognac’s past will find the Château de Beaulon much easier on the pocketbook. And you certainly won’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice when you drink it.

The light caramel-colored cognac had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

If you’re planning on serving a digestif after your Thanksgiving dinner, and I strongly recommend it, a cognac like Château de Beaulon’s would be just the thing.

A Surprisingly Odd Malbec

16 March 2013

Georges Duboeuf MalbecWhile browsing the wine section at Whole Foods, I noticed something surprising: a Georges Duboeuf Malbec. Georges Duboeuf is one of France’s most famous vintners, infamously producing an ocean of (usually overpriced) Beaujolais Nouveau each year, as well as a range of perfectly tasty standard wines. But I had never seen a Duboeuf Malbec, and I had never seen a wine of any kind from Comté Tolosan, the Indication Géographique Protégée listed on the back label. This Georges Duboeuf wine had become very oddly irresistable, and I snapped it up.

Almost every wine drinker these days has heard of Malbec, thanks to its Argentinean success. I used to think Malbec originated in Argentina, but it’s actually a French variety, though ever fewer French vineyards grow it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Malbec is “still the backbone of Cahors,” a red made in France’s southwest, and it is from this wine that Georges Duboeuf must have drawn his inspiration for the Malbec varietal.

And that’s where the real story is. Comté Tolosan is classified as a Vin de Pays, a very loosely regulated wine region which in this case encompasses almost the whole of southwestern France. Often in France, or in any terroir-driven wine country, the more specific the geographic designation, the higher the quality of the wine. The regulations on these geographic designations, or AOCs, can be very restrictive, however, preventing innovative winemakers from experimenting with different techniques or varieties.

In contrast, the Vin de Pays regions typically have very loose rules. In fact, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, red wine grapes in Comté Tolosan “are not specified beyond ‘what is growing’!” (Exclamation point in the original.) It took the regulation-happy French a while to get to this point — it was only in 2000 that varietal wines were legalized, but even then, they had to be 100% that variety (most of the rest of the world allows winemakers to blend up to 15% of other varieties in varietal wines). Finally, in 2004, producers were authorized to adjust their varietal wines with a bit of blending, making them more palatable.

And with that, the French finally had a shot at capturing consumers who look for “Chardonnay” or “Malbec” instead of “Chinon” or “Mâcon-Villages.” Now, according to the Encyclopedia, the Vin de Pays category of wine “includes some of the most innovative and exciting wines being produced in the world today.”

I’m not sure the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir qualifies as one of the most exciting wines in the world, but I certainly enjoyed drinking it. It had a pleasant aroma of brandied cherries, and some rustic fruit on the palate. That moved to black pepper spice and a softly tannic, more velvety finish. It kept an even keel, avoiding any surprises, making it sure to satisfy a wide range of red-wine drinkers. And after all, at about $10 a bottle, what more could you ask?

SUMMARY

2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir: Moves from a rough, rustic start to a velvety finish. A fine value for the price, and sure to be tasty with pizza or pasta with red sauce. Chill in the refreigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I bought this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland for $10, but a rather harried employee told me they don’t have it in stock at the moment. You might see it in the wine departments of other Whole Foods branches, however.

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 1

2 January 2013

Chef de Cuisine Joshua MarrellEvery now and then, an invitation to attend a special dinner will waft my way, and though I do my best to avoid overindulgence (ahem), I feel it is my bloggerly duty to accept whenever possible. And so,  immediately following my office’s Christmas party, at which much pasta and red wine was consumed, I headed to Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, home to cozy and stylish Urban Union.

A handful of other food/wine bloggers gathered at the communal Chef’s Table, “where diners are served customized and unique creations, along with expertly selected wine pairings by the two sommeliers on staff,” according to the invitation. I felt a bit apprehensive, hoping that the pairings would be unusual enough to suit this blog, but as soon as I walked in, I knew it would work out just fine. A large chalkboard listed the “Wines on Tap,” starting with a Greek Moschofilero and a Californian Arneis. Yeah!

We started with a relatively conventional but undeniably delicious pairing of sake and ahi tuna sashimi with ponzu, basil and almonds. The Narutotai Ginjo Namagenshu, an unpasturized, unfiltered sake that continues to condition in its can, tasted fruity and a bit yeasty before driving to a clean, spicy finish. Paired with the sashimi, it seemed surprisingly less spicy; it became smoother, duskier. (You can read more about sake here.)

Domaine GiachinoThings started to get more unusual and exciting when General Manager and Sommelier Andrew Algren brought out the next bottle, a 2009 Domaine Giachino Abymes “Monfarina”.Very little wine escapes from France’s Alpine Savoie region, so I always feel delighted when I have the chance to taste one. This wine comes from the Abymes cru, about 100 kilometers south of Geneva, Switzerland, and it’s made with Jacquère, a white variety obscure to us but relatively common in Savoie. The wine smelled of rich green apples, and it tasted light-bodied and rather tart. The acids cried out for food, and a delightful winter beet salad with pancetta chips mellowed them nicely.

Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell kept things seasonal with his next course, a lush sunchoke purée topped with roasted sunchokes and sunchoke chips. Its deeply satisfying flavor worked marvelously with Algren’s most daring pairing yet: A 2011 Tikveš Rkaciteli from theSunchokes pureed, roasted and in chip form Republic of Macedonia (not to be confused with the Greek region of the same name). If you’ve encountered the incredibly ancient Rkaciteli variety at all, it was probably spelled “Rkatsiteli” and it probably came from Georgia (the country) or perhaps New York. It’s the most widely planted variety in the ex-Soviet republics, which isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement, but it can make some excellent wines.

Macedonia, for its part, has a climate “extremely favorable to vine cultivation,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I was excited to see what this little country would do with one of the world’s oldest wine varieties. The Tikveš Rkaciteli fascinated me with aromas of bright pear and a bit of tar. It proved to be very acidic, oily and minerally, which sounds terrible, but I found it oddly enticing. The rich sunchoke dish balanced out the acids, making the wine rounder and fuller.

Up Next: The meal continues with an unexpected rosé and a wine that tastes like “grabbing a handful of the French forest floor and chowing down.”

Urban Union on Urbanspoon

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 3

1 August 2012

COURSE 5: Tinto Fino

I’d read a few reviews touting the “Pulpo” at Tinto, a tapas restaurant owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces, and I couldn’t resist popping in for a quick snack. Unfortunately, I accidentally popped into Village Whiskey instead. Their doors are right next to each other, and, well, it had been a long day. I didn’t realize my mistake until I checked in with the hostess, sat down at the bar and requested a menu from the bartender.

“Wow, this menu doesn’t look like tapas,” I thought to myself. Finally, finally, my befogged brain apprehended the situation. I decided the most graceful way to make an exit would be to feign an important phone call. “Oh hi, Sweetie. How are you? What? What’s the matter? Oh dear! Oh dear oh dear. Are you serious? No! Now, calm down.” I gestured helplessly to the hostess as I walked past. “Alright, now everything is going to be fine. Just slow down so I can” get myself into the right frickin’ restaurant.

I managed to find my way into Tinto, plunked myself into an equally comfortable bar stool and perused the wine list. I needed something a little hefty with the Pulpo (grilled octopus) that was coming, and I spotted a 2009 Bodegas y Viñedos Valderiz “Valdehermoso” Tinto Fino Joven from Ribera del Duero, Rioja’s lesser-known (but nevertheless formidable) competitor. Not unlike Arizona’s Page Springs, this region stretching along the Duero River north of Madrid regularly brushes almost 100° during the day before plunging into the 50’s at night. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “The light and air here have a high-altitude dryness and brightness about them, as do the wines, which have particularly lively acidity thanks to those cool nights.”

And Tinto Fino? I discovered that this variety, also known as Tinto del País, is simply a local variant of Tempranillo, albeit a variant particularly well-adapted to the rather extreme climate of Ribera del Duero. This Joven (young) Tinto Fino had dark, dark fruit on the nose and palate, expansive spice and attention-grabbing tannins. It really brought out the savory flavors in the snack of Mahon cheese crisps. With the slightly charred, moderately spicy octopus, the spice in the wine became almost too much. But paired with non-spicy red meats or even pork, a Tinto Fino should keep its cool deliciously. I recommend keeping an eye out for them.

(more…)

The Tasting Room – Part 1

3 March 2012

We Chicagoans are blessed with an array of fine wine bars, such as In Fine Spirits, Webster’s and Avec. One of my favorites, The Tasting Room, boasts not only an intriguing by-the-glass wine selection, but also beautiful views of the city’s skyline. On my last visit, it was the Sears Tower I contemplated out the second-floor windows, not the Willis, so a return trip was certainly long overdue.

Some old friends and I met up on a clear Thursday evening, arriving early enough to score a plum table by the windows. I perused the wine list, planning my strategy for the evening. A number of unusual and obscure options tempted me, but there was no question what my first drink of the evening would be: a non-vintage (NV) Eric Bordelet “Poire Autentique” from France’s Pays d’Auge region (part of Normandy). This sparkler comes from pears, not grapes.

Monsieur Bordelet, a former sommelier, presides over bio-dynamically farmed orchards of heirloom pear and apple trees, some of which date back to the 18th century. As many as 15 different kinds of pears go into this light yellow/green sparkling cider, which has a mere 4% alcohol content, making it quite easy to drink. Its powerful aroma of ripe, golden pears sucked me right in, and I was impressed by the elegantly tiny bubbles (though there were so many of them as to make it almost foamy). It tasted sweet, acidic and, of course, peary, but the cider finished surprisingly dry. $5 for a three-ounce pour or $10 for six.

I also couldn’t resist trying the 2010 Verus Furmint from Štajerska, also known as Slovenian Styria. I’ve long had a fondness for Slovenian wines, and Slovenia, for that matter, but this glass turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The Oxford Companion to Wine calls Furmint a “fine, fiery white grape variety,” but this fruity, tart wine felt rather flabby, with a watery, slightly chalky finish. It livened up nicely with food, but all in all, it seemed to lack structure. I may have sampled a bottle that had been open too long — noted wine critic Jancis Robinson lavished praise on the 2007 Verus Furmint in this article, which also relates the fascinating story of the company. $5.50 for a three-ounce pour, $11 for six.

Some delicious reds would soon overshadow this small disappointment, but that’s for another post…

 

The World’s Oldest Sparkling Wine

18 January 2012

In the sparkling wine section of large wine shops, you’ll sometimes see a funny, rather squat bottle mixed in with the crémant and the Champagne. That would be Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux, the only Blanquette de Limoux I’ve ever seen on an American wine shelf. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Limoux locals claim it pre-dates Champagne, since bottle-fermented sparkling wines were in production at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire as early as 1531.

The appellation of Limoux stretches into the foothills of the Pyrenees, just south of Carcassonne in southern France. Its altitude ensures a cool climate, giving Limoux perhaps more in common with the far northern Champagne region than its neighboring coastal appellations along the Mediterranean.

The appellation makes both still and sparkling wine, but its bubbly is far better known. Oddly, the region produces both Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux, the latter a more refined, international-style sparkler made primarily from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, as opposed to the more “rustic” Mauzac which forms the base of Blanquette. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that Limoux was supposed to have chosen one name or the other for the appellation back in 1994, but since the Crémant didn’t exactly catch fire as planned, both styles continue to be produced.

(more…)