euro scribbles: amuse my bouche at l’arnsbourg.

Bordeaux, food pairing, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized

On Terry Theise’s recommendation (and Bobby Stuckey’s reaction to this recommendation), we took a detour and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere north in the Vosges for a night. Here, hidden among the the thick deciduous trees and trout streams is a Relaix & Chateaux harnessing one of the most famous culinary gems on the planet: L’Arnsbourg, a Michelin-3 rated restaurant. Translation: a highly rated Michelin restaurant (3 being highest) is a place where the food is imaginary, thoughtful and globally influential in shaping taste and culture. L’Arnsbourg was that… and more. This is my first time to a rated 3, I believe, but I have been to a couple others that are executed in the same fashion. When you sit down you are greeted with an aperitif. For us, it was a dry Grand Cru Speigel Muscat from Dirler-Cade while we decided our meal plan. There were essentially 2 choices: expensive 7 course and more expensive 9 course. We were going all out for 29 euro more.

And so, the parade began!

Every time I sit to a meal of more than two courses, I get a wave of excitement when it is just the beginning! There is an evening ahead that promises enlightened cuisine, fanciful art, and new potential for flavors. I am assured that my senses will be saturated. And that is indescribably exciting.

One after the next amuses de la bouche (amusements of the mouth) were brought to our table. I always think of these one-bite wonders as thoughtful considerations for new flavor possibilities. One was a raspberry condensed square with a gritty gel-like texture and salmon aftertaste. Another was a light, icy yet frothy vermouth meets rum concoction. A golden egg came our way with yet another foamy whipped egg with a deep yolk to find at the bottom as well as fresh chives. What looked like ice cream tasted rather like corn on the cob cream. It was smooth, savory and absolutely divine.

Corn was an inspirational feature for them, as in fact we had an entire course devoted to many variations of this seemingly simple, midwestern delight– a pasta of corn paired with cilantro, black sesame and coconut, for example.

We had goose liver in a the shape and design of an Olympic medal as well. I thought perhaps this place could change my mind, but no… I just can’t do it.

Our favorite course was right in the middle of the parade, a seabass bathing in a pond of lemon butter alongside a potato puree (that was really butter puree with potato) and a  thick smear of the best hollandaise you might ever taste. I could have died in that bite. It was so unbelievably good, especially when paired with our 2007 Billaud-Simon Montee de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru. This dish was so delicious, I actually became unfull. I had been teetering before this course, but it actually energized my palate and got me back on the saddle! Seriously!

The next act was what I like to call Surprise Tomato! But they call it ‘All Around the Tomato’. Here, were presented with a white bowl and drainer dish, upon which are about 7 variations of the most wonderful summertime fruit: the tomato. Various colors and textures complicate the sweet delicacy. And just when we think we are done? Voila! the drain dish is lifted and below is a vegetarian lasagna made of tomato! Our eyes lit up, and we were all quite amused at their stunt. It was unusually similar to real lasagna. Uncanny, really!

We switched into another wine, a red: the 2001 Le Dauphine Fronsac. This and the Chablis were both quite affordable in comparison to the rest of the list (roughly 70 euro each). Both were fantastic. If you are looking to pinch in a coupe areas, trust that this sommelier knows what he is doing. Even if less expensive than some others, these more affordable options do no lack thoughtfulness or complexity. They were perfect.

Next were lovely large lumps of blue lobster and what they call ‘carrot bon bons’–essentially pureed balls of carrot. I like to think of it as the best baby food ever! I admit, however, the pairing with lobster didn’t quite work for me. Separate they were lovely, though.

At this point, I am nearing pain. Though portions are small, they are never-ending. We are delivered the pigeon, and I am least thrilled by this course. It is similar to duck, an animal which I am pretty fair-weathered. I eat it anyway, of course–each bite represents a couple euro. My spirits are revived, however, with the final savory present: a frothy, delicate ‘cappuccino’ or soup with black truffles and bits of potato. I nearly lick the teeny bowl, as though I hadn’t a meal for days and finally sit back, reflecting on the evenings series of events in my mouth.

An equally impressive array of desserts march out of the kitchen, but I am entering comatose at this point. As I shut down, I am again reminded of how lucky I am to be here, in the woods, at a restaurant that might dictate the coming flavors in restaurants around the world in the next couple years. To be apart of art and culture in the making is almost surreal… and so tasty.

a brief encounter: montreal in 34 hours.

Bordeaux, travel, Wine Travel

Sometimes, regardless of the time spent in actual transit, one must jump on the chance to explore a new city. When I learned that I could go to Montreal for a lengthy day and a half, I had my bag packed in minutes and a passport in hand. I have wanted to see Montreal for as long as I remember. When I was little, Paris seemed so far away—resereved for my imagination and Madeline picture books. Montreal, its frenchy Canadian cousin, was more accessible and real.

Flying in, I revelled in the sight of water everywhere. I am from Wisconsin, originally, and although I am possibly more taken by immense mountains of Colorado, water is in my blood. That in combination with the cool, damp air had me feeling very much at home in Montreal. In fact, these two days sent me on a stream of nostalgia. Memories surfaced ’round ever corner and down every narrow street. It’s strange how some places have that affect, like I have without a doubt been here before. The only other place I felt this way was in Geneva. Both places have a hold on my senses so that I am in a constant state of confusion… yet calm.

After dropping our luggage at Le Petit Hotel, a very hip and clean hotel on the Rue Sainte-Paul in Vieux Montreal (old town), we headed to get a bite. A million places to choose from, we popped into a nondescript Italienne joint. The pizza was delicious and it afforded us time to get out and explore before dinnertime. With only a few hours to kill, we hit the cobblestone streets, strolled the Vieux Port, watched some frisbee tossing in the park and mosied all over the oldest part of the town. Vieux Montreal was not always so trendy. In 1642, when the French settled here, it was a port town for trading and commerce. Thankfully, they restored it before it was too late. Now, even the Ben & Jerry’s looks exquisite in its midieval outfit. Every gallery, every cremerie, every cafe looks adorable.

In the centre-village, we caught a few acts. Some tap dance, comedy and a man throwing fire to name a few. It felt like I had fallen into a Dickens novel. There was an energy that was difficult to compare to anywhere I had ever been. All ages, all kinds were out at all hours. Even at 11:30 that night, it felt like Barcelona. Perhaps they know the dead of winter is looming…

That evening, we checked out Chez Buvette de Simone. It was a charming, bohemian wine bar in a funky little pocket of Montreal. Massive chalkboards displayed countless options for half or full glass pours, orange electric wire hung lights around the room and the center was a wrap around communal bar. I knew we had found a genuine, tourist-free gem, and I savored each sip, the soft candlelight and youthful faces of the city as I muched on pommes frites.

After our aperitif, we had dinner at Bistro Cocagne–a French Bistro just a few miles from Chez Buvette. We began with some ’02 Domaine Oudin Chablis 1er Cru. It was singing right now and paired so well with my mesculin with sunlower seeds and onion-mustard dressing. I then had to try the ’08 Justina Francuska Vinarija from Serbia. Never having anything from this region, I was so curious. A bright ruby hue filled the glass. On the nose, it smelled of Morgon Cru Beaujolais. It was quite fruity yet had a serious mineral slant–like wet granite or something. On the palate, the tannins were soft and the acid fairly pronounced. It reminded me of possibly Barbera. But really, it was in a class of its own. By no means overly complex, it was friendly with food and felt lovely on the majority of our palates.

With dinner came an ’00 Chateaux Lagarette Cuvee Helios Premiere Cotes de Bordeaux–a possibly lesser known ‘basic’ Chateaux, but in a vintage like ’00, this puppy was barking a good tune. It really impressed us all, and had me convinced that a good year in Bordeaux affords any wine lover sensational values. One can really build an amateur cellar with wines of this caliber. It paired perfectly with the venison and risotto.

We finished with a dessert wine from the Jura. Only a few wines in Colorado exist from this famed region… and they’ll cost you. Excited to have a the opportunity to have one, I went for it. It smelled of oxidized spiced apples and elderflower. Tightly knit on the palate, its complexities unraveled citrus, minerals and day old golden delicious on the counter. It was a real treat with the selection of French cheeses we were served.

I passed on dessert, but looking around the table, I slightly regretted that choice. One person had what looked like and individual crock of a streusel with two large melty clumps of ice cream on top. Next time…

In the morning, we had breakfast at Marche de Villette on the Rue Sainte-Paul, just steps from our hotel. It was a perfect little cafe that served everything from crepes to quiche lorraine, french onion soup to omelletes with potato in duck fat and pate. We noticed they made European handmade sandwiches and was sure to grab some on our way out of town for the plane ride’s dinner.

Daytime was met with a bike race and a jaunt to the botanical gardens, insectarium and biodome. It was the perfect afternoon to spend with an eleven-year-old boy, staring at pirahnas and puffins for a few hours.

I want to go back already. I felt it was a tease to spend a mere 36 hours in this fascinating city. Montreal had the rare ability of exhibiting an edgy, metropolitain vibe while maintaining the quaint, aniquated pulse one would hope to glean in such an historic village. They truly have something for everyone: spas, boutique designers, art galleries, beautiful bike and running paths, high end restaurants, teeny tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries, pubs, parks, yachts, history and museums galore.

I can say with little hesitation, Montreal has found a fast place in my heart, and in my top 5 favorite cities in the world. Next time, I will have a few more hours and a longer list of places to visit.

For the record… young Bordeaux does pair well with some cheese.x

Bordeaux, cheese, food pairing, french wine, Kermit Lynch, Wine Blog

Preparing for my in-store tasting last night featuring Bordeaux, I thought to pair them with a few cheeses, when it occurred to me that I had no idea where to start.  Nothing came naturally to my palate’s memory that quite made sense.

I apparently was not alone, as I learned when I decided to ask Google, an exercise I often perform when I am confused (Dear Google, What is nucleosynthesis? What is the meaning of life? And where did I leave my keys, yet again?).  I garnered a few ideas. Though it seemed this was no cinch for anyone, rather an experiment with significant trial and error.

I picked up one cheese that many chimed in was decent: a youthful Gouda. I also grabbed a salty, hard Parrano by Uniekaas, a Ptit Anjou (ironically, a variety that Google actually needs its own Google for—does anyone have information on this stinky little cheese that is reminiscent of Epoisses, just a touch less gooey?), and believe it or not Bucheron—a semi-hard, yet still soft goat cheese that gets quite dry as it gets closer to the hardened rind that surrounds it. I had this with a cru Beaujolais last autumn and thought it would probably have great potential with other lighter, tannic fruity reds.

My theory proved correct with the 2007 Chateau Lagarde St. Emilion ($17)—a musky scented, friendly sipper from the Merlot-dominant right bank.  Without any cheese, this wine was very earthy, almost moldy, with dried plums, cherry and wet forest floral notes. Spice was singing on the palate and the tannins were getting much smoother after slumbering all summer in the bottle. Paired with the Bucheron, it was a young spritely thing, boasting ripe berry fruit, cranberries and juicy cherries.

The Parrano deepened its voice a bit with chewy cherry tobacco and moist soil. It was a suddenly Bordeaux with the change of a cheese. This Dutch gouda-style cow’s milk cheese is much like parmesan in its nutty, salty elocution.

They young Gouda, however, was a disaster. It made the Bordeaux taste thin, almost watery, and weightless (damn Google).

And the imitation Epoisses with no identity? It overwhelmed the wine a bit much, making the flavors more pungent and tangy.

The same drill was applied to two other wines: a white 2007 Chateau Thieuley ($17), a sensational terroir driven blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (50/50) as well as a red with Kermit Lynch’s hand-picked 2005 Chateau Aney Haut-Medoc ($32). I wasn’t surprised that the former did so well with many of the cheeses. Whites often do fare better with cheese pairing as it is.

On its own, the Thieuley smelled of just snipped asparagus, sweet peas, fresh green herbs and a twist of lemon—no grapefruit as you might find in several other Sauvignon Blancs. The Semillon does a lovely job of softening the acidic edges and delivering a sweet tune.

The Parrano dampened the fruit on the nose but sent a surge of zesty citrus racing to the sides of my tongue once on the palate. The reaction actually made me crave the Bucheron which then, as expected, calmed down the acid a little bit and zeroed in on the rich, creamy texture of the dry goat cheese.

The young Gouda once again…failed.  It caused all the citrus as found in the Parrano, but didn’t feature the zesty acid that so stunningly held the backbone securely in place.

And finally, the most complex wine of the night taken from the famed ’05 vintage, the Aney alone was the most severe in temperament. It held a high chin and spoke in austere, hushed tones.  I was able to extract some earthy elements of bark, cedar, tobacco anise, savory herbs, cherries and raspberries, but they were hardly audible and properly buried as good Bordeaux will do when not ready to drink.

With the help of cheese, it began to speak up a bit.

The Parrano stole some of the earthiness from the nose, although it managed to kick up very loud notes of fennel, wet violets and blueberry.

The young Gouda, which was such a miserable fail in the last couple, reclaimed its name with this one, as it managed to restore the dirty terroir that makes a Bordeaux so singular in scent.  It was back to its musky old self.

And the Ptit Anjou?  Surprisingly, this stinky old, rotten piece of cheese gave the Bordeaux a facelift.  It was a toddler, really.  It shouted with ripe berry fruit, vanilla bean, oak and ‘drink me now!’ demands. The old Bordeaux funk was hardly to be found, except on the finish when olives on the dirt-encrusted rocks came through.

I was amazed at how much these wines changed with a little fromage. I actually made thin k of a decanter differently.  Maybe all a youthful Bordeaux needs is the right pairing in order to coerce its character a couple years before its optimum suggested debut?

This tasting also demonstrated to both my customers and me how un-prohibitive some Bordeaux can be. We were all very impressed by these selections, two under $20 and one just around $30 (which, I might add, seems highly capable of ageing a good 15-20 years—not a bad investment for someone looking to start a little cellar on a budget).

on a more positive note: 2009 bordeaux.

Bordeaux, french wine, Wine Blog

Best to follow a slam session with a side of optimism.  A lot of hype is coming about for the 2009 Bordeaux.  Are people blowing it out of proportion, taking a decent vintage to another level simply to up the prices and gain back all that was hindered in the last few years?

Well, the thing is, you can’t fudge what the weatherman decides to bring.  And in 2009, he decided to give Bordeaux the wink they’ve been waiting on for possibly decades.  Everything went just right.  For many winemakers, it was a vintage to kick back and just let the vineyards do their thing.  A bounty of sunshine poured over the fields day in and day out, there was just enough rain, no drought, no mold.  It never got too hot, and the evenings were cool, allowing for intense ripening followed by fantastic diurnal conditions for acid strengthening in the grapes.  Winemakers could actually bask in the knowledge that they could pick when the grapes were peaking with optimal ripeness.  It is the most terroir-driven vintage in ages according to many sources—really outlining and defining each individual block appellation from one another.  Hearty, big reds from Bordeaux with stellar acidity means one important thing: buy up and enjoy.

And not just the reds.  The whites, which I have been able to sample, are stunning!  The inexpensive 09 Chateau Beauregard ($14) from Graves has a bit of a punch—more youthful, grassy and gabby with grapefruit.  Complexity goes up from there with the third label Carbonnieux from Pessac-Leognan: the 09 Chateau Tour-Leognan ($26).  This had an exquisite expression, not stopping at herbs and minerals but expanding upon aromas less traveled, such as almond, mascarpone and cherry—it was faint but it was there!  Those I tasted it with were stupefied with delight.  Plus, come on, the label is classic.  Loved it.

Finally, Sauternes.  All the sunshine plus late season showers were just what these Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Semillon grapes needed in order to achieve near perfect botrytis.

It’s not a lie.  This truly is a vintage to grab up when you can.  Sure, some will wear prohibitive price tags, but in vintages like these, you have to try desperately to make crappy juice, so even the inexpensive ones tend upon excellent values.  You can find some of the whites already peppering the shelves, but the reds are still sleeping for another year or so…

the cheese stands alone: my humble opinion of the 2008 bordeaux vintage.

Bordeaux, Wine Blog

(Deep breath.  My most daring, opinionated leap yet…)

I’ve tallied the votes, and the verdict seems clear…

I am greatly outnumbered by those who would disagree with my unfavorable opinion of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage.

But how could this be?  My palate may overlook a detail or two—a hint of lavender or a touch of tar—but to totally miss the structure, longevity and charm that impressed so many other critics in 2008… you got me.

True, to be fair, I have had only one introduction to the wines of this troubled vintage—a beautiful luncheon that is put on annually in the Denver area by a very well known, experienced importer—Tom Lane.  He always pull out the stops for the affair, this year held at one of the top restaurants in the Denver: Frank Bonanno’s Mizuna, where both he and the talented Tony Clement were cooking up some of the most brilliant dishes yet to pair with 5 flights of Bordeaux (my favorite being the Squash Blossom Quiche with a fight of youthful, lighter reds).  At roughly four wines per flight from highly received Chateaux, prefaced by a reception of about 30 other lesser heard of yet very solid estates, I felt that my brief encounter was fairly thorough, though hardly anointing me an expert on the topic.

So perhaps, to be clear, before moving ahead with my evaluation, it is important to point out that I am, by no means, a Bordeaux connoisseur.  I have tasted hundreds, though, of many vintages and classifications.  I have a decent palate.  I know what I like.  I know what I don’t.  And I can articulate why.

2008 was a rough year for Bordeaux.  April saw an early frost, which severely diminished the crop.  During flowering (mid-May) and fruit setting (end-May), buckets of rain resulted in uneven berries, known as millerandage.  This is stressful for winemakers, as the ripening occurs at various times and often produces grapes of lesser quality.  The potential for a grape is particularly vulnerable during the flowering and fruit set stage and can often be enough to make or break a vintage.  The setting for 2008…was grim.

June only saw more rain, creating an ideal breeding ground for mildew and rot.  A small yield toughed it out, though, and found better weather around the corner.  August was variable—still stuck in a two-week rain streak, but September brought relief.  In fact, had everything gone right, it was remarkable harvest weather.  Warm, dry…lovely.  October carried out this song with superb, steady measure, giving Bordelais hopes that 2008 wasn’t a total washout.

And it wasn’t a total washout.

According to some, including the controversial yet oh so revered Robert Parker, 2008 was “vastly superior to ’07, ’06, ’04, ’03, ’02, ’01, and ’99…[2008] had all the qualities that make…a great vintage so special: exceptionally dark opaque colors, gorgeously ripe fruit, stunning purity almost across the board, great freshness…remarkable density as well as concentration…the tannins are unusually velvety.”  Several articles concur that while maybe it was not spectacular, the vintage certainly delivered impressive wines.

And so, here I am… the cheese… standing alone.

I just can’t wrap my mind around these wines.  I tried the exact same from a similar 2007 vintage last year, but I was able to find the charm, the appeal… the justification of price in a time when they were even a bit more than now.  This year, some were masqueraded by oppressive oak, such as the lesser expensive 08 Le Haut-Medoc de Beychevelle and 08 Chateau Beaumont (I was told the treatment was not significant, but that in itself seems to tell me whatever oak it did see overwhelmed the assumedly weak grapes).  Others were ‘green’ and not in the enticing, signature Cab kind of way.  They were thin and under ripe in character—wines like the everyday 08 Chateau d’Arvigny Haut-Medoc as well as the 06 L’Enclos Pomerol and the 08 Amiral de Beychevelle St. Julien. Still others, the ones that shocked me most, could have been mistaken for Spanish Grenache.  You may think I am absolutely nutso, but mentioning it to a few others in the industry, I saw their furrowed brows relax with recognition—“Ah, yeah, that’s what it is!  What the f*^#??”  Jammy red fruit, kirsch, spice, granite and tomato leaves came together like a sweet melody—sweet except for one detail… it didn’t taste or smell like dusty, old, stinky Bordeaux!  Wines such as 08 Les Fiefs de Lagrange St. Julien, 08 Blasson d’Issan and 08 Chateau Fonbel St. Emilion had me bemused for minutes on end.

Never, even if off vintages like 03, 04, 06 and 07, have I experienced such un-Bordeaux like Bordeaux.   These wines seemed higher in acid and lower in tannin than usual, making for tarter flavors of cranberry and sour cherry, the finishes on many were fast and forgotten, the overall impression was one of monotony and…meh.

Bordeaux is on sale this year, did you hear?  But apparently not for the vintage, according to experts.  This is purely a result of the recession.  Makes you wonder when so many casually make note that 2008 saw a 40-50% price drop, not to mention that the glorious, much-anticipated 2009’s will probably see a 500% increase.  You heard it.  500%.  What other wine region on earth has such range of value?  Well, that’s another blog, but what I wanted to point out is that regardless of the high praises they are shelling out for 2008, my palate begs to differ.  These are on sale because they should be.  The only ones that demonstrated decent personalities and ageworthiness that day included the 08 d’Issan and 08 Giscours—both from Margaux.  They were the only ones that had that tough young tannin I look for in Bordeaux that immediately calls attention to my back palate and the enamel on my teeth.  They were very well-structured and balanced.  They were Bordeaux.

If you have been reading my blog, you would know I rarely criticize unless I feel compelled.  I am simply not digging the 2008 vintage.  I am baffled beyond words as to why so many in print seems to push them.  I fear it is because Bordeaux has seen a couple off years and there is a great vintage looming—and 2009 does, indeed, seem to be as good as they say.   I was fortunate to barrel taste a few 2009 reds last month when traveling in Bordeaux, including Lynch-Bages.  Return to point: who wants to sit on a ton of 06, 07 and 08?  I certainly don’t.  There are too many magnificent wines from other parts of the world to collect and sip on until more terroir driven Bordeaux become available—a crucial descriptor that, I feel, truly does make a Bordeaux the phenomenal wine it can be (and at a price that can be rationalized).  And that was a descriptor I just had difficulty finding during that luncheon.

Try some for yourself and chime in.  I know I was not alone among colleagues that day. Despite the glowing reviews, we all walked away a little miffed and mute.  Waiting with baited breath for 2009

the business of bordeaux.

Bordeaux, french wine, French Wine Travel, Wine Blog, wine news, Wine Travel

Following the last week of the 97th Tour de France, I was thrilled to set my eyes (and lips) upon one of the most famous wine regions in the world: Bordeaux.  Not only that, but my manfriend and I had the rare pleasure to tour and dine with Jean-Charles Cazes—son of the owner of the highly revered, classified Fifth Growth Pauillac estate: Lynch-Bages.

To me, left bank Bordeaux, where Pauillac can be found, was more awe-inspiring than adorable—more immense and impressive than say the charming dips and curves that tangle themselves up in the little brick vineyard homes of the Rhone or Burgundy.  In Bordeaux, the vast, manicured fields of vines were dotted with massive Chateaux.  It spoke of wealth, power and success.

You don’t have to reach beyond a few hundred years to really learn about the rise of the Bordelaise wine industry.  Sometime thereabouts 1500-1600, it was actually their Cahors neighbors who were filling the mouths and minds of English royalty with rich, dark Malbec-based reds.  Of course, their only shipping port to the UK was through Bordeaux.  It didn’t take long for this merchant hub to see the writing on the wall.  Soon after, taxes soared and Cahors could no keep up with the exporting fees.  Meanwhile, Bordeaux found that their sandy-stone, chalky, clay-based soils weren’t too shabby.  Cabernet loved it as did Merlot, Cab France, Petite Verdot, Carmenere and even a little Malbec.  They put these grapes together and won the hearts of England.  By the early 1700’s, estates like Lynch-Bages were securing a corner of economy through wine and enjoying great success.

Though the primary land that comprises Lynch-Bages was developed in 1729 and saw many changes over the next 200 years, the Cazes family took over in 1934.  The current owner, Jean-Michel Cazes, is a friendly, humble older gentleman.  At this point, he has left the management of the business to his son (Jean-Charles) and daughter (Sylvie).

I say ‘business’ quite deliberately, as it very much speaks to the pulse in this region—a pulse that was established hundreds of years ago but beats persistently into the present.  Here, it is less about selling romance as it is about selling futures of wine.  The 2009 vintage is all the buzz right now.  The weather was perfect, the progress in the barrel ideal.  Hurry they say… buy it up now before it’s too late!

In the next entry, I will talk less about Bordeaux as a whole and more about my time spent at Lynch-Bages