euro scribbles: a visit with chave to never forget.

french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized, Wine Travel

Without a doubt, the hospitality and generosity we felt by the Chaves were the highlight of the trip. I have always joked that my first hard core crush was the southern Rhone. But the beauty and wonder in the steeply terraced hills of the north were mesmerizing. I couldn’t quite get enough.

It began with a family in Tain l’Hermitage that welcomed us into their home. Bruno and Julie Bradley lived in a sensational turn-of-the-century home and was careful to respect that moment in time in its decor. They ran a one bedroom B&B called La Marronniere that will forever be impressed on my mind. Each morning began with a hearty (but heart friendly) petit dejuner, much of its contents Julie bought each morning as she rode her bicycle into town. We would take breakfast in a gorgeous, room reserved for her l’Attelier–hat shop. She was the person to see in all the Rhone if you were needing a handcrafted hat for any occasion. Each one more interesting than the next, it was quite the lift of spirit in that colorful, fanciful room each morning, with the tall door open wide unto the lawn. Serenity is a drab word to describe it. We’ll just say, Erin Chave (Jean-Louis’ wonderful wife) hooked us up!

We traveled to Chateauneuf du Pape and visited an old favorite the first day: Domaine Pegau. Unfortunately, the vigneron Lawrence was not there. In fact, even the assistant who was to meet us forgot and left for Nimes! Lawrence’s mother, who spoke about as much English as I do French, would not see us leave, though. She carefully took us to the cellar and gave us the lineup.

Every year–good or bad the vintage may be– these wines manage to astound me. To prove it, we were fortunate to try both a 2008 and 2009 of their main label CdP. Both demonstrated complexity of flavor and depth. The 2008 was just more open now–it was desiring consumption. But it by no means was a grandma. The 2008 defied the stereotypes of its vintage, unraveled one aroma after the next, and did not succumb to a weak timbre as so many have that I have tried. I never could have guess on taste/smell alone.

The 2009 was simply amazing. It had all the likely suspects that the 08 had—lavender, garrigue, raspberry, chewy anise, black tea leaves and a healthy dose of wild, bramble berries– the difference was in the feel of this wine. It wrapped around my tongue and held tight using its considerable tannin and noticeable (though not terribly high) acid. It was meant to stay quiet for a few more years at least.

The next morning we went to what my friend calls the ‘DRC of the Rhone’ a lofty title that goes to a region I quite possibly have the most trouble admiring: Condrieu. The place he admires so? Domaine Georges Vernay. The thing is, I can love Viognier when handled in a very particular way. Like a high school football star, if it isn’t careful and rests on its laurels, it very well can get a bit chubby on the mid-palate, by which I mean the acid falls and the opulence of this floral, peachy grape takes over everything. It can be a walk through the pristine gardens of Versaille one moment and just as easily as that person next to you on an international flight that manages to think her cheapest perfume is a wonderful idea to share with her fellow passengers.

Vernay is, without a doubt, the best in the land. I experienced this singular winery a coupe years ago at a Martine’s wine tasting in San Francisco. They perhaps had 2 bottles of the flagship Coteaux de Cornon for hundreds of people, so it was kept beneath the table for pestering people such as myself. Georges Vernay began this project in the 1950’s. His daughter Catherine, who is the current winemaker, has not only carried the torch, she has established her skills in Cote Rotie with reds.

Though we were not with Catherine herself, we did get a rigorous tasting through about 12 wines with their tasting room manager. She was a petite, smiling French woman who was only too eager to please with these ridiculously good pours. You can tell she rarely deals with people who do not approve.

These wines have the power to change one’s opinion about Viognier. It did for me, and it did for my fellow travelers. These often flamboyant, flabby whites are kept in tight and made to produce a strip tease of wonder. One element after the next is revealed in these wines. To explain it is insane, as each one of us experienced it in a completely different way. The only thing we agreed up that day was that it danced on our palates. It lured us to try again and attempt to decipher the complex message. Mostly, this message was terroir. But terroir is awful difficult to articulate.

It was finally time for our rendezvous at Chaves–a night I have looked forward to for months since it was planned. We walked up to a humble unmarked door, unsure it was the right one. We saw in small print ‘Gerard Chave’ on the bell and gave it a go. Sure enough, a polite Frenchwoman opened the door and let us in to his winery. A small line of goosebumps crawled up my spine. I didn’t need to know one thing about this historic, important winery to feel the centuries pass through me in a flash of a moment. A smiley, blonde-haired American comes out to greet us. Forget handshakes, I was getting a large hug. Chave’s wife, Erin, was the picture of American-girl-next-door perfection. She had on a black tank top, some jeans and trusty flip-slops–sandals that I swear are never to be seen on French people. I learned quickly she was a girl from Missouri, worked for Kermit Lynch, met Chave… and the rest was one massive, 17th generation history.

They now have two kiddos: Louise and Emma. The first, a well-mannered and spoken young man at the age of 6 (?). He took his role as big brother (and next heir) quite seriously. When my colleague said to him, “How does it feel to be king of this land”, as we stood atop the vineyards looking out at the Rhone, he simply answered, “It is a very nice view.” Emma, on the hand, is a force to be reckoned with, I’m calling it now! This strong-headed, hard-working farm girl of the large age of 3 1/2 was taking me around, introducing me to plants, fish, noting problems in the garden, and bringing my attention to small details I may have never seen. I observed in her an innate connection to the soil already– the evidence of Chave DNA manifested in her every movement. She was a vineyard manager in birth. A firecracker, one might describe, I could see she was a handful–but her parents lit up when they talked about her.

We got a tour of the old cellars while we tasted several samples still in barrel and learned that it wasn’t always here that his family made wine. In fact, their famed Hermitage was a purchase in the 1860’s, when land was available and not yet devastated by phylloxera. His ancestors saw an opportunity and thankfully went for it. As he generously tried us on a 1994 Hermitage Blanc, a wine that is showing very promising and marked development, though I would have wished to hang out with it a bit longer to see its evolution, he described the general history of winemaking he was able to learn through old reports and journals about his family’s estate. He had a very real sympathy for phylloxera, as the words his ancestors wrote described the horror in tangible detail. It was as though I were hearing this nightmare of a story for the first time, his execution was so genuine. No one in Europe knew what was happening for years. They just observed a decline in production, unable to understand the cause felt ‘round the country. He then showed us an old room with bottles from the 1920’s-40’s. His family hid them from the Nazis. It was a powerful sight to behold.

Finally he grabbed an unmarked bottle, gave it a rub, and we headed to the vineyards for a final tour of his St. Joseph vines. He timed it perfectly. The sun began to soften the  color cast on the vines. I could see for miles the endless bumps of terraced vineyards in the region. I don’t even want to attempt to explain. It was an aesthetic height I have rarely ever reached.

We followed him to his house then, as he paved the way in Erin’s old Land Rover, trudging up the steep hills. Finally, at the top we pulled into his driveway. A tire swing hung on the tree. A garden was flourishing with tomatoes, squash and strawberries. And  the sun was setting behind the Alps, which formed the backdrop for the Rhone river and valley below. We all took a walk through these Hermitage vineyards that lay in his backyard. I could see why it was so varied and complex when we were shown the vast differences in soil plots left in a patchwork fashion by glaciers and deposits. Some soils had fine loess, others decomposed granite, and still other cailloux river pebbles–like small galets one sees in Chateauneuf.

As we returned to the house, I noted it was quite modern inside  yet encased in an old, preserved shell which was the outside. I loved the juxtaposition. We enjoyed an evening of excellent food, good stories, laughter and, of course, real fine wine, including the unmarked bottle of 1999 Hermitage Rouge. These moments I feel like the luckiest person in the world. And so, thank you Jean-Louise and Erin for accenting my life’s portrait with a colorful streak of fortune and felicity.

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euro scribbles: so this is burgundy, part 2.

Burgundy, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Wine Education

2012 has not been easy for Burgundians. They need just about every gulp of sun they can get, and this vintage has just been cool, rainy and unforgiving. That was the repeated theme at nearly every winery we visited. But that does not mean all is lost. Those who know what’s up just have to work for it a little harder is all. And if all else fails, just go with Grand Cru from mediocre years. As Jeremy Seysses of Dujac said, no matter how much you want to take all the credit, mother nature just makes it looks so easy on a consistent basis, whether the vintage is superb or somber.

Due to this trying vintage, our visit with Mikulski (Meursault) was cancelled the day following Dujac. If the weather demanded it so, the vigneron needed to respond. It was a very busy time in Burgundy, as most winemakers here remarked. Just driving down the route des vins, I was amazed to see how many more workers were in the vineyards compared to other regions we had been. Whether plowing or pruning, they were busy bees, trying to do whatever it took to make good of a dire situation.

Still, you ask any one of them, and that’s they beauty of Burgundy. Regardless of what you do, mother nature has her fingerprint on everything here– you will taste the work that was done in the 2012’s. Here, wine is so transparently scribed in each sip. You will sense their long, chill days and the rain. You will either prefer it or not. She doesn’t care.

In lieu of Mikulski, Javillier graciously offered their time, not only to us but to what appeared to be a tribe of misfits. Four separate groups huddled in the damp cellar to taste some magnificent Meursault as well as some other cuvees from various neighboring regions. Meursault is oft noted for its more pregnant style of Chardonnay. Some can overdo the oak a bit perhaps, but if it is done well, they can be some of the best in the land. Javillier was one of those producers.

Before I press onward, I feel I need to describe Patrick Javillier. He might have been my favorite personality sketch I will recall from this trip. In short, he was a sweet, humble man, perhaps 60 years in age and the ultimate, stereotypical Burgundian winemaker I have always imagined: tussled hair, flurried half-sentences, one moment he was grabbing glasses, the next taking a bite of baguette. He appeared a genius with calculations of yeast additions or barrel treatments racing through his big brain. He scurried around seemingly frazzled, when I noticed how lab-like his winery entry felt. Bare bones, concrete floor and definitely like a science lab. I was waiting for stickers of flower power to appear. Or perhaps Austin Power.

Sure enough, as he explained his estate, we learned that he began in 1974. Yes, now that made sense. It also made me like him already. I can’t explain why that ambience resonates with me. But it does. He then took is basket of glasses down to the cellar and began the show of the just bottled 2010’s.

Whether ‘simple’ village Bourgogne Blanc on a plot nearby Puligny-Montrachet or a old vine Meursault from Clos du Clomas, they wines were spot on and illuminating! My favorites of the bunch were:

Bourgogne Blanc Cuvee Oligocene–Taken from a plot nearby Puligny Montrachet, this gives all other Bourgogne a run for its money! Its higher limestone content allows for a little more new barrel (it can take it), the acid is simply soaring, and wet stones on the nose pair nicely with the accompaniment of white flowers that come afterwards.

Meursault les Tilliets– A plot between Meursault and Puligny that sees clay as well as limestone. A very classic presentation of candied lemon, apples and shimmering minerals, it gives this opulent region a more zesty edge. This is what I am talking about when I say I crave Meursault.

Puligny Montrachet– All elbows and knees right now as it awkwardly wrestle with my taste buds, but this ugly duckling is sure to blow many of its companions out of the water with a little bit of maturity. ‘Patience’, a term so many vignerons in this area use to explain their creations. An elegant swan is what I predict in 3-5 years time.

I felt bad spitting these wines out. At our other visits so far, I noticed that the winemaker had us pour it back in barrel or the bottle. So little is made. And Javellier is no exception. The only reason I don’t have it in Colorado is that production is so teeny tiny. Maybe they should start having people give their tastes back so Colorado can see some distribution!

Patrick Javillier’s lovely daughter Marion is also making her mark. Her focus is red wine. She has a couple plots in Savigny les Beaune. The two wines she poured were Les Grands Liards and 1er Cru Serpentieres. Though the former was going through a bit of an awkward stage trying to become something lovely, the latter was already there. Impressively charming wines from an equally charming creator.

We finished that day at Pavelot– a heralded producer in the region of Savigny les Beaune. Their winemaking ancestry can be traced to teh 17th century, but Luc Pavelot would say it goes further than that. On a mere 9 hecatares, they build up and fashion fragrant, fanciful wines of both red (66%) and whites (33%). We partook mostly of the former. I could give you detailed tasting notes and jargon galore. But you must be bored of this by now. No? Well, I am. I am more interested in the character of these wines–the timbre, the presence they imprint on my palate.

In short, I would describe these wines as herbal. Each and every wine we sampled carried the scent of bramble fruit, rosemary, pine and medicinal essences. They were incredibly complicated and varied.

It was here that I came to a revelation: Burgundy cannot be described at all. The differences between terroir is felt. On the tongue. Some nestle themselves in the middle. Other weave back and forth, a tug of war. Others sing on the sides. Yet others play the in the back field. And while it might be easy to say Gevrey-Chmabertain felt remarkably different from Santenay, even more illuminating was the fact that even those that were all from Savigny les Beaune, for instance, also sat on the tongue in a variety of ways.

So this is it! THIS is Burgundy. It was so eye-opening to me, yet not requiring sight whatsoever. On the palate, it is felt. That simple. Frickin’ Burgundy. What will I do with this incessantly paradoxal region. Here I am now calling it simple. Right.

My favorites from Pavelot (all 2010’s):

Aloxe-Corton Village– A well-woven cross-patch work of art, this is a balanced wine with  marked integrity. Classic example of the herbal-kissed bramble fruit I discussed.

Les Serpentieres 1er Cru-– A site that benefits from numerous exposures, this Pinot Noir is polite yet full of purpose. It takes the hallmark combination of Burgundian greatness (balance of mineral, fruit, acid, body, tannin and lightness) and somehow pulls it off.

Dominode 1er Cru– Though closed right now, it has secrets only time will reveal. Tightly wound up and desperate to talk, this wine makes you know you are sipping greatness. Without a doubt, a wine for the long haul of 15-20 years.

And so, that is that. While I would love to recommend places to eat, we did not try firsthand any that were noteworthy. We did, however, hear of many that we were just a little too budget-conscious to try, otherwise they were closed. Everyone is on holiday you see. But here’s the short list:

Ma Cuisine

Bar du Square 

Le Benaton

Chez Guy 

I also recommend you visit the Hospices de Beaune. A little touristy? Yes. But worth it? Certainly. For about 8 euros you get to experience the formative days of this historic auction.

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.

euro scribbles: a final day in Champagne…

Bubbles, french wine, French Wine Travel, organic wine, travel, Wine Travel

Where terroir is written in the wine when it comes to Burgundy–each parcel of land portraying its life with meticulous accuracy–Champagne’s terroir can be a little more difficult to decipher. At least for me. That is why it became so important to pay attention to each individual winemaker’s passion here. Each emphasized particular philosophies and sources for inspiration in their ‘artisinal’ work (a common word each used to describe themselves). For Goeffroy, there was a point to discuss native yeast fermentation, with Pehu-Simonet a shift towards biodynamics, both insisting upon blocked malolactic for cleaner execution of flavor. For Chartogne-Taillet, preservation of history but very progressive in his approach to find terroir in single vineyard bottlings.

The third day, we had only one appointment with one of my favorite producers: Marc Hebrart. There was no tour, rather a seat at a very cozy table and a focused tasting. Though Jean-Paul Herbrart, the current vigneron, spoke a little less English, he communicated so much in his wines and his conversation of them. For him, blending was the way to achieve complexity. He alone owned about 85 different parcels of land, each with its own personality. To keep single might drive him mad, he laughed. A good looking gentleman, you could read laughter in his face over the years. It suited him and made us all so comfortable around him. Jean-Paul explained that for him, pieces of wine are so much greater together than the sum of its parts. Having just been on the other side of the tracks with Alexandre Chartogne, we appreciated another perspective, but nevertheless remained Switzerland in our opinion, grateful for so many styles!

Here, I really finally understood the great differences between Champagne’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the tongue. The former brought me back to raspberry La Croix water when I was young (only infinitely better!). The bramble fruit of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and even black cherry dominated the flavors. Yeastier notes were to be found on the nose. For Chardonnay, elegance was centerstage. Lemon curd, yogurt and citrus peel were the reliable traits I kept meeting. The palate carried more acid and less body. They are sort of like hearing a child with a resounding singing voice. You don’t expect power on first glance… or taste. It is felt and understood by way of experiencing it. I am a sucker for Blancs de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne. They have won me over with ease. Not the least of which, Hebrart’s 1er Cru. 

I snuck away for a night and spent a night with my guy in Reims. His race has seen very unfortunate times this past week, but it cannot be helped. These things happen. This epic, historical race sees heights and depths that range so great along the way for everyone. Sadly, their team has been given a healthy dose of misfortune so far. If there is one thing I have learned, though, about Garmin-Sharp-Barricuda, they never cease to surprise. In these coming weeks, I am certain they will come out with their heads high and their results respectful and unexpected.

We took Terry Theise up on a recommendation nearby: Le Grand Cerf for dinner. We were thrown back maybe 50 years and given very traditional service, though it seems they are attempting to modernize their cuisine. I laughed when I looked at the menu.Your choice was an 8 course meal for 75 Euro or a small appetizer and entree for nearly 100 euro to start. I guess we were to have 8 courses. Gotta love how the French make the ‘right’ decision for you if you let them. Thankfully they were a series of very small, 2 to 3 bite sensations. It gave us time to talk, catch up and enjoy a few moments in this incredible setting.

The next morning I rejoined my group and we visited Goutorbe before leaving town. They were the same folks who owned the hotel where we stayed. What we found so remarkable about this family estate was how central they were to the community itself. They had a large space where one could imagine village events taking place, weddings, lectures, seminars and community functions. They had a large movie screen where even we sat to watch a film on the history of their estate and how it began with selling rootstock and vines. The operated a lovely hotel, obviously. They seemed very involved with the local government and community happenings. We were all quite impressed!

This was certainly the most traditional of the estates we saw. Their production was a bit larger. Their formula pretty consistent from year to year: 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chard blend, 9 grams sugar dosage, malolactic fermentation. But formulas work for good reason. Tasting though the selection, I was struck by its textbook elocution of ‘traditional’ Champagne. It is precisely the kind I would use to illustrate the classical characteristics to my customers. The prices were great, too. For those trying to break out of the obvious Veuve or Moet, this would be a natural step into discovering Recolant-Manipulants, or small grower farmer fizz.

euro scribbles cont: getting down to business in the land of bubbles.

Bubbles, cycling, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized

The morning is met with a rescheduled appointment, a series of unfortunate orienteering, but alas… unforgettable snapshots of memories that may not have been had we not gone off course. Not far from Ay, we visit Hautvilliers–home to the L’Abbaye of Dom Perignon. Though he did not invent these beads of beauty, he did learn how to perfect them and really grab hold of the method itself.

As we enter the cathedral, the same intoxicating smell of wet, chalky cellars fill my nostrils. I think to myself that churches should always smell so inviting. Perhaps I would frequent them daily! Classical music resounds in the space. Thin wooden benches are stacked left and right. There are massive wood cuttings one one side of the room, while renaissance murals line the other. Slate tombstones at the front before the altar commemorate the famous monk along with his scribe Dom Ruinart. I light a candle in the sanctuary and say a short prayer to my mom. I smile knowing this is as close as I might get to sharing Champagne with her. And it feels heavenly.

The church has a remarkable history, filled with strife, vulnerability and change. Since its erection in 650 AD by St. Nivard, it began its turbulent journey. Destroyed in 882 by the Normans, then restored in 1411 only to be burnt down 35 years later by the English in the 100 years war. It was consecrated in 1518, then burnt in 1562 by the Huguenots, rebuilt in 1603 and finally really restored with Dom Perignon’s presence beginning in 1672.

We press on to Verzenay, a blessed region in the Montagne des Reims that sees all Grand Cru vineyards. We meet with the consultant for Pehu-Simonet along with the son (who spoke little English). Here, we learn about their philosophies and methods. We begin to put together just how varied each vigneron really is, even if their common goal to produce high quality, small quantities are the same.

Like Geoffroy, they block malolactic. In doing so, they do not force the natural acidity to lessen. Both would agree this allows the fruit to be more pronounced, less obscured. I would agree, there was a difference to be sure– a lightness on the palate. Malolactic, much like it sounds, promotes a creamier milky body in the wine by inciting a lactic bacteria to convert the more tart malic acid levels. So here, in these wines, a linear quality is preserved. Apparently less than 1% of vignerons in Champagne block malo according to our guide, so this was very unusual that we met with two in a row!

Where they differ is yeast cultures. Geoffroy insists upon the native yeasts found on the skin and in the cellar to carry out the first fermentation. They believe it maintains the terroir of the region. Pehu-Simonet, though organic and in the process of becoming biodynamic, proudly stand by their choice to use non-native strains that are indigenous, however, to the Champagne region. For one thing, it is much less risky, and they feel confident they can repeat quality first fermentations time and again without the fear of interruption or, God forbid, a ‘stuck fermentation.’ When I asked him about possibly losing ‘terroir’, as the last winemaker insisted upon, he explained that while it may affect aromatics, that is not to be confused with terroir. Terroir, he continued, is felt on the palate. You cannot smell a region, you must taste the difference. One thing I found fascinating was that they selected much of their oak from the nearby Verzy forest (note: only their highest end wines see time in oak–most are steel or concrete). In doing that, he explained, there was another sense of local terroir added to their wines. It was all very poetic, and one thing was certain after all this ambiguity: both were phenomenal producers with distinctive styles. Where there was a note of opulence and restrained oxidation in Geoffroy’s bubbles, while a linear, tasteful reductive quality shined through in Pehu-Simonet’s wines.

We tried several wines at Pehu-Simonet, but the standouts for me were the NV Blancs des Blancs (thing lemon sorbet on a hot, sunny day) and the Blancs de Noir (100% Pinot Noir–a rare, rare thing to see), taken from the tenderloin of the slopes, beaming with dark berried fruit and coming out salty on the finish. It was difficult not to have the word ‘terroir’ beat through my brain with melodic persistence.

That, I think, is the true meaning of terroir.

Though hard to leave, we knew our next appointment would be equally interesting: Chartogne-Taillet, recently taken over by the ‘next’ generation: Alexandre Chartogne–handsome, gentle giant. He was very tall, good-looking, and he had the kindest eyes. His English was unbelievable, but he spoke with such humble hushed tones, you had to smile. Despite his quiet demeanor, however, he had an equal portion of fierce ambition to turn this 800 year old estate into something different. He seeks to shake things up in Merfy, a small village just north and west of Reims. How? In a region rampant with philosophies of blending, Alexandre is insistent that true terroir speaks through each parcel. Though he makes a famous cuvee–St. Anne– his focus is single vineyard expressions.

We spend the first part of the appointment getting to know one another. This was very important to do before meeting his cellar–a detail that I find important, as so many vignerons do it the other way around, tasting at the end. He showed us old journals of everyday notes his family has kept since 1700! He basically explained that this was important for him to understand his family’s tradition in taking over for future generations. He has a little guy of his own. Whether or not he takes over one day will be his decision. It is not forced on anyone. His son is two! Here’s hoping!

The most eye opening experience, really on this trip thus far, was sitting with Alexandre and being blind of 3 varying dosages on the same exact wine. Not only did it change the wine’s character remarkably, all four of us had extremely different preferences. One was dosed with 0 grams of sugar (Brut Nature), the others at 2 and 4 grams (Brut). Strangely, the first was the most appealing to me (and I usually like a dab of sugar to balance the acidity). The nose was almost nutty and fully enticing. The second took on a much fruitier presentation. It was favored by most. It had a fresh, vibrant quality without being too linear. Finally, the one with 4 grams, while interesting and well-received, left a very slight trace of residual presence on the palate–not in the lingering finish kind of way. To be clear, a dosage does and should vary dependent on zillions of reasons. Even a house style should listen to a vintage if something, like acid, has changed. For example, thought the sugar was noticeable in the one with 4 grams, we shortly thereafter had another wine of his–the 2006 Blanc de Blancs from the Heurtebise parcel–at a whopping 5 grams (yes, I am joking, as most ‘Brut’ in Champagne is 8-12 grams), and there wasn’t a trace on the palate. Time really integrated it, plus the acid was pretty rippin’! If you EVER have an opportunity to do this exercise, I recommend it. Tasting is truly the best teacher.

He showed us around the cellars, tasted us on pre-phylloxera 100% still (not fizzy) Pinot Meunier, and showed us old bottles from his personal non-bubbles collection. He then sat down with us, and really delved into his personal passion and vigor for maintaining single vineyard labels. His training in Cote des Blancs really affected him, changing his perspective forever. Though it goes against the norm, it creates yet another thought-provoking process in a region of such history and varied opinions.

As we drove away, we just couldn’t get over his passion– a passion so genuine, it was granular. You could touch it. Even if we understood the overarching technique and purpose for blending, his enthusiasm made it so you wanted to throw it out the window and hop on his bandwagon. His love was infectious.

Exhausted, we took our grubby, unkempt selves to a little pizzeria in Epernay. It was exactly what we needed. A bottle of Chianti and a couple of pies at 9 euros each. Epernay, while not over the top in its gastronomic options, was solid, quaint and right on the money. It was not overcome with tourists, overpriced as Reims or cheesy. It has a very local feel, many speak no English and your food is just very unassuming and well made. Even today, we sat at a simple corner Brasserie and had croque monsieur. It was sensational for 3 euro and full service. For real. Not to mention, yesterday we stopped at a couple little shops for bread, cheese and fresh salami to feed 4 people for about 12 euro. The same food at Whole Foods? Easily $45. It’s pretty awesome.

Stay tuned for the rest of Champagne in tomorrow’s blog…

In the meantime, on our way to Alsace today!

euro scribbles: a good trip starts with champagne, naturally.

french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Wine Travel

Day 3 and I am itching to report to all of you my travels so far and those that lie ahead. It is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, professional tour of France’s wine regions I have been to date. And I can hardly contain my excitement! My boss, his partner, their buddy and I are loosely following France’s more famous tour: that of cycling. As we weave in an out of the route, we will sip our way through the some of the most famous regions on earth: Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Burgundy, the Northern and the Southern Rhone. A finish in Paris will conclude a memorable couple weeks of glorious consumption: that of culture, cycling, food and, of course… wine!

The first day is always a mess. Looking back, it always feel a dream occurred. Jetlag manages to steal my soul, and I am little more than a robot, stiff-kneed and zombie-like. I meet my friends in Paris, who have just come from London and we pile in a car headed to Champagne. As I suggest a GPS rental (at the cost of the car for two weeks), they decide they have sharp enough orienteering skills to go without.

I should have known then… but I was too numb from travel to insist.

It is a sad day when four grown adults fall apart like children and resort to sand throwing when lost in the hillsides of beautiful Champagne. The ironic situation of traveling alongside the Tour de France to watch my fiancee’s team Garmin Sharp Barracuda, without I dare say… a Garmin, has been nothing short of frustrating. And so I begin this travel diary of my next 2 weeks in this wondrous country with this: get a Garmin. Fortunately, I know someone who might remedy this little mess up very soon. 😉

Alas, between numerous bouts of getting lost, blaming one another, finding our way, then laughing about it (a bipolar bunch are we), there are some incredible visits with my favorite Champagne houses. They are not Veuve, nor Pommery, Mumms or Moet, they aren’t Taittinger nor even Bollinger. Per usual, I am after something smaller. Our focus is small growers (Recolant Manipulants) on this trip, or as we like to call it: farmer fizz. We speak to Terry Theise before this trip and his folks at Skurnik imports have set us up with 5 fantastic estates. Where the top 5 big guys in Champagne are literally responsible for over 2/3 of the entire production, these growers represent a humble 5,000 case production or so. Quality is everything. Terroir is the inspiration.

We arrive to our first lodgings: Castel Jeanson, owned by yet another grower who we are to visit tomorrow: Goutorbe. This hotel in Ay (about 30 minutes from downtown Reims?) seems to be known and loved by many, as a knowing smile erupts on the faces of everyone whom we tell we are here. The women who run it are so gracious and attentive. Their English is so superb, I feel silly even attempting my clumsy French, and the rooms are massive in comparison to most European hotels. I give it two thumbs up and thank Mr. Theise very much for this perfect recommendation.

Our first winery visit the very eveining we settle in town is Geoffroy (Jeff-wah), just next door to our lovely hotel. We step into the cellars, and immediately I feel at home when that musty smell of grapes skins and vinification greets me. The town even smells as such, walking by so many wineries along the road. We join another group of travelers here, and it is a perfect start. Their novice knowledge prompts our guide to run through basic Champagne production, giving us a crash course before moving on to more technical aspects. We learn that they use all gravity, not pumps, as well as all natural yeasts and no malolactic fermentation whatsoever. This becomes important when we realize through other estates how much this affects the style.

At the end, we taste through 4 wines: the Brut Traditional Expression, the 2006 Brut Empreinte, the 04 Extra Brut 1er Cru, and finally the rose of 100% Pinot Noir. The first–their entry level blend of 10% Chard, 55%Pinot Meunier and 35% Pinot Noir has a chalky, drying effect on the palate. It is quite serious for its place in life. The Empreinte is my favorite. Though a bit slutty and forward on the nose, offering voluptuous, nutty aromas, caramel and honey, it is too generous to turn away from–its firm acidity invites another sip with ease. Too much ease… The next, the 04, is most certainly the most complex. A day of jetlag, I was definitely appreciating the easier number before this one, but I knew that with a little work and thought, this was the hardest to break down. It was tightly wound with incredible depth and conversation. Finally, the pink was a pleasure, but my least favorite. Perhaps it came too late, as my heart was sold to the two preceding it. Nonetheless, its ample cherry fruit and dark berried bliss were nice treats for my tongue.

A dinner at a local restaurant in Epernay, and I am falling in my food. As I crawl to sleep not an hour later, I sleep for nine hours.

 

(stay tuned! more pics and stories to come. a few technical difficulties with the photos right now!)

Le troisième Tour de French wines!

Bubbles, cycling, french wine, French Wine Travel, travel

As I gear up to head across the pond, here’s the 3rd Annual tour ahead… by the bottle. It’s a list I pull together every year for my customers. I figure my 3 readers (or 4 now?) may want to take a gander at the wine regions this year’s Tour de France plans to cycle through. It’s the kind of Tour I prefer…

Champagne (July 6)

Known to make full grown men weep like a baby, Champagne has long been heralded the most precious discovery in all the world’s wine. As with all things brilliant when it comes to wine, we can thank the monks for bubbles.  They invented these beads of beauty back in 1531 down near the Languedoc (sorry Dom Perignon—you may have been the Benedictine monk who improved Champagne, but it was your comrades who invented the concept).  They discovered that once you made a still wine, you could add a little more sugar and yeast (referred to as the ‘licor de tirajo’), bottle it back up and promote a second fermentation process.

At Little’s, we take it one step further with most of our Champagne— we dismiss the mass-produced negociant juice, which speaks to about 80% of the production. We opt instead for farmer fizz. Why is this so important? When you are spending over $40 on a bottle of wine, we want to ensure you are getting a product that has a name behind the label. No effort so strenuous as producing Champagne should go unrecognized. Not only that, you get more for your money! Most of ours are classified Grand Cru or at the very least Premier Cru—denoting the best vineyards in all of Champagne. Even Dom at $150 doesn’t wear that honor on its bodice! Some favorites: Marc Hebrart  ($52), Aubry ($40), Paul Dethune ($50), Varnier ($65), 2002 Gaston Chiquet ($72—half the price of vintage Dom Perignon!), and Chartogne-Taillet ($42).
Alsace (July 7)

Alsace. A region that once was Germany…then France…then          Germany…then France…and so on. For several decades now, it has fallen into the hands of the French, but its history is an inescapable characteristic of this region’s wine and culture. These flute-shaped bottles (much like German Rieslings), wear its varietal  name like a badge, as opposed to most of its French neighbors who go by blends & regions to describe what lies behind theglass. Here, they focus on: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat and even Gewurztraminer. Sure, they make some reds, but here white wine is the noble ageworthy grape.

The Alsace geographically resides in a fascinating area. Wedged as it is between the Rhine river to the east and the Vosges Mountains, it  has the unique advantage of a balanced climate, great mountainside terraced drainage and sun exposure. It is dry, sunny and just about perfect for their heralded varietals. Be sure to sample a few if you are so curious! We carry many from the 14 generations old Emily Beyer Estate, many of which start at only $19! They even make a red we carry at the same price. Prized Grand Cru can be found with Joseph Cattin’s Riesling at only $24. And don’t miss out on trying one the region’s most beloved and influential Zind Humbrecht, the first to practice biodynamics. We have his Pinot Blanc and blend, both about $25. Bubbles, called Cremant here, range from Cattin’s Brut ($18) to our household favorites: Allimant Laugner ($24) and Camille Braun ($25—a favorite of mine, so much so I am serving it at our wedding this fall!)

Jura (July 8)

A region that wins the obscurity contest based solely on the fact that these wines are so damn hard to find, expensive, and honestly not very researched at this point. The same voice for the Savoie—Wink Lorch—has become the voice for the Jura as well. Although the smallest region at 1500 hectares, it is also one of the more complicated. But let’s take a crack at it. Only 80 k east of Burgundy, it is closest in soils and style as you will ever get.

What we have to offer at Little’s is one of the reds from this mysterious region, a Pinot Noir: 2009 Chateau d’Arlay ($22). People joke that the reds here are so light in color that they are often mistaken for roses. Likewise the whites are so dark they are considered amber. Pinot, funny enough, are among the darkest compared to Trosseau and the even lighter Poulsard. Grown on soil remarkably similar to Burgundy, they are a hop, skip and a jump from being mistaken time and again. The delicate, tile-colored reds are high in acid and perfect with alpine cuisine—sausages, rustic casseroles and cheese.

Macon (July 11)

A recovery from the mountains and a rest day to boot, the race will press on through the southern section of the greatest wines on earth (fine, tied with Champagne, Bordeaux and Piedmont—-fair?): Burgundy. Thankfully, a little parcel of peat isn’t as expensive as those from the more northerly Cote d’Or. That parcel is the Maconnais. Here, excepting Beaujolais, you are in the warmest pocket that is famous for its richer, fuller, more modern style Chardonnays. For many, this is their first taste of Burgundy. Remarkably different in character from California Chardonnay, you really should give it a try regardless of your biases towards this popular varietal. And if you love Cali Chard, see what you think about these oft un-oaked beauties. While many are intended for early consumption, one little section is head and shoulders above the rest: Pouilly-Fuisse.

At Little’s, you may try both. We have a range of general Macon Chardonnays, such as the Cave de Buxy ($15), Cave des Grands Saint Veran ($15) and the ever so delightful Domaine Jean Touzot Macon-Villages ($16). You can also take it up a notch and grab the Domaine de la Collogne Gilles Noblet Pouilly Fuisse— we have the half bottle at $16 or the full size 750 ml at $26.

Savoie (July 12)

Back in the mountains we go, welcoming the crisp whites of summer that come along with it! To really appreciate the wines of Savoie, one must close their eyes and visualize the setting. High in the Alpine Mountains, where vineyards climb up either side of the valley, is a wine region that produces wines that taste of place. Crisp, minerally whites and the perky bitter edge of peppery red Mondeuse characterize the wines of Savoie. A French friend once recounted every winter when he and his buddies would pop up to Savoie for world class skiing, throw some Apremont in the snow by the hot tub and enjoy just after coming off the runs. It is the quintessential fondue wine, yes… but so much more. These are pristine, light, reflections of terroir in their finest light. Stretching from Lac Leman in Haute Savoie to the Isere Valley and Chambery , 1800 hectares comprises the Savoie growing region. The best vineyards are steeply terraced and south facing, much like Burgundy’s Cote d’Or or Alsace. ‘Vin de Savoie’ can come from all over the region technically. We have several, from light reds of Mondeuse, crisp Apremonts, and Jacquere from Chinian. They are no more than $15, making it an ideal summer go-to quaffer!

Rhone (July 13)

To be fair, the Tour will mostly be in the northern section this time around, but we are letting it slide, so you can taste the vast difference between the steeply sloped Syrah-loving north and Grenache-glutton south. Driving along the rather short stretch of land which marks the northern Rhone a mere 50 k north of the southern Rhone, you wouldn’t know they were related by name. In fact, one writer noted that all they have in common is a river. And that’s true. You will know you are in the north when suddenly very steep hills emerge from the ground near the river. Vineyards will be terraced all about, making it easy to figure out cardinal directions, for here, only the prominent vineyards of quality are planted on the northern slopes facing south. It is much harsher and cooler here than in the southern Rhone. They sip on the sun, just as we would water in the desert. The best vineyards also seek shelter from the Mistral as we would a tornado in the Midwest. Here, productions are small but treasured, for this region produces some of the most haunting, ageworthy Syrahs you will ever taste.

Pressing on to the South, the most memorable landmark—Mount Ventoux—is home to many a Tour de France stages over the years. A region that is felt, the southern Rhone has a penetrating smell that reflects the garrigue and herbs that characterize its environment. The Mistral is the single-most influential and challenging feature of the Rhone. It is typically going about 50k per hour during the day, sometimes reaching 90k/hr. At night it calms down. As a result, vines are often bush-trained low to the ground. Comes down the Alps and funnels through the Rhone Valley. It can also occur when pressure is high in the Atlantic and low in the Gulf of Genoa. However, in the summer it is merely due to the thermal depression in Provence. Keep this in mind the next time the boys in spandex ride their way through this gorgeous, and challenging piece of France!

Picpoul de Pinet (July 14)

It is always appropriate to start at the beginning. For the Languedoc, it just may be the little ancient ‘Piquepoul’ varietal, a white grape that was noted for its prevalence in the early 1600’s by botanist  JB Maniol. Though by no means an ‘intellectual wine’ to dwell upon, it has a distinct translation of place: the dry warm climate upon rolling hills of limestone amongst perfumed  pine groves and a cool necessary breeze coming off the Mediterranean—a breeze that moderates the heat allowing crisp acid to develop. An enticing terroir alternates between a limestone laden garrigue covered scrubland as well as ancient rock. An interesting fact to dwell upon, this region is bisected by the Via Domitia, a road that links Spain with ancient Rome. North of this route are the famous limestone soils amidst garrigue and pine. South speaking to the gravelly plain in the Mediterranean’s Thau Basin. Here in the basin, cuisine is reflective of its perfect source for shellfish (the natural accompaniment to this lively, bright white!).

Inside the bottle, the Picpoul comes off fresh and vibrant. The color is almost green-yellow in the glass. This wine radiates with citrus fruit and racy acidity. Translation: excellent food pairing, especially with shellfish and goat cheese.  There is also a slight glycerol, round note, too, though that provides the wine the balance it needs to entertain a variety of palates—a trait which really speaks to its popularity in the store. We have two to choose from here at Little’s. One has been here for eternity, and is honestly our best-seller of all time: HB Caves de Pomerols Picpoul de Pinet ($12). If you want to give another guy a try, we recommend the La Domitienne—our newest addition at only $13. Who knows? It may become your new favorite!

Limoux (July 15)

Still hanging around the massive Languedoc region, you will find yourself in the historic regions of Limoux—officially home to the first version of Champagne method ever created in 1541. Limoux, a wondrously pretty green valley, sits in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, west of the Corbieres hills. Winds prevail from the collision of Atlantic and Mediterranean influence, giving it slightly more maritime characteristics than the rest of the Languedoc. This area boasts distinct terroir through its rocky terrain of clay, limestone and sand. The unique climate allows for a slow, even ripening season. It was the first sparkling in France, the first AOC in the Languedoc. Due to their fortunate proximity to the Cork Oak forest the south in Cataluna,  it is thought that they were able to get the materials need for flasks allowing for secondary fermentation. Traditionally, Mauzac  (rustic, homey and reminiscent of apple peels and cider) was used as the base grape, but now many are finding that other grapes yield more complex bubbles. Though famous for their bubbles, they are increasingly becoming well known for some of the most complex Chardonnays in all of France, so watch out Burgundy!

We only have one Limoux currently in the store: The J Laurens Brut ($23).  I mean no trace of hyperbole when I says that it is as close as one might get to the real stuff from Champagne itself. This one sees 60% Chardonnay, 30% Chenin Blanc, 5% Mauzac and 5%

Pinot.  It is a tete de cuvee. It wears bright apple and lemon on the nose, but it also loaded with layers of spice and mystery… They have been around for over 80 years trying to get it right.

Gascogne (July 17)

A region that never gets overlooked for the great Tour, nesteld as it is in the massive Pyrenees mountain range, Gascony, as it is sometimes called, offers up on a platter some of France’s most obscure and fascinating wines! Whether the deeply colored Tannats from Madiran or the softly spoken whites of Jurancon and the general region of Gascogne itself, this alpine region boasts much more than merely cheese and foie gras (though those are beyond noteworthy!).

It’s easy enough to try the wine of the month, Lalande Chardonnay ($13)—a yummy alternative to the Maconnais. But for something even more crisp to pair with this wretched heat, perhaps the Domaine de Pouy is for you at $11. Browse the French wines for more inspiration, or settle on a nice bottle of Armangac to do the trick!

 Touraine:

While it takes no convincing our customers to fall in love with the likes of Loire’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumes, it is less often that we see you all walk out the door with Loire’s other gems from the center of the Valley: Touraine. Here, long-lived, complex Chenin Blanc of Vouvray and tender-hearted, peppery Cab Franc of northern-most subregion of Chinon take center stage. So unique in character are they that they have the ability to take you by surprise, capturing your intrigue in seconds, but having you searching for words of articulation for years.

If you have never met Touraine, it is time. Start with the carefree Sauv Blanc sipper from the organic, thoughtful Thierry Delauney with his Le Grand Ballon ($13)— a playful, crisp white that honors the annual hot air balloon festival in the Loire Valley. For a more complex Sauvignon Blanc, try the Le Clos Les Grandes Vignes while it lasts ($17)—about as close as it gets to their more famous easterly neighbors.

Get your Chenin Blanc affair started with the man who wrote the language of love for this grape: Kermit Lynch’s 09 Champalou Vouvray Sec ($24). Bruised apples, damp cellars, and honeysuckle are just a few things you might find… For a memorable biodynamic producer that has been around longer that the tuffeau soils that characterize this region, try Vigneau Chevreau’s Vouvray Sec. And finally, for a touch of sweetness, grab Domaine des Vodanis Demi-Sec Vouvray ($22). In 2007, Francois Gilet and Nicolas Darraqc joined forces after going their own ways for a bit after oenology school and founded this estate– a 4 ha property that was sold off by the prestigious Domaine Huet. They bought up another 10 ha and proceeded to make the best wine they could off those limestone soils using highly sustainable methods, borrowing often from biodynamic principles and adhering to strict measures of yield restraint for high quality.

 

And that’s a wrap! Stop by today, if you are in the neighborhood.  Grab your yellow Tour de French Wine card and get drinking! Each featured region gets you 1 bottle at 10% off. Complete all 10, and you will receive 50% off any one bottle of your choice from a featured! Come see why it is our most anticipated promotion all year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

euro scribbles: buckwheat… a regional delicacy (and death trap).

travel, Wine Travel, wisconsin

After fighting with sleep and losing, aboard the train back to Milan where I leave tomorrow, Jonathan wakes me to view one of the most magnificent sights in the world: Lago di Como. This tranquil mass of water surrounded by mountains is just settling in before sunset, nodding off the light and welcoming the dark. Little fishing boats near shore might make one forget it is January at all. Its sheer brilliance may also make one forget the day’s trials, when all at once the burning in my throat does not.

Aboard the Bernina Express...

Just a couple hours ago, after a most unwritable journey down the Alps of Engadin (St. Moritz) on the Bernina Express into the Italian border town of Torino, Jonathan and I strolled our suitcases about a half mile or so from the station to a little restaurant, La Botte, where we were recommended to eat just next to the grand Basilica della Madonna. Here, we would find the ‘tipico’ food from the region, their pasta specialty called pizzoccheri as well as their dried, thin meat called bresaola. A sucker for regional dishes, we were there as soon as our feet hit the Tirano ground. La Botte sadly was closed. But we went to the restaurant next door which seemed promising, Albergo Altavilla. There we saw the travelers who were on board with us down the slope. They were from northern Illinois. Jonathan called that one within 12 seconds of a sharing a panoramic view car with them on the train. He called them ‘my people’. I laughed, because they were very much like me: chatty (I swear, they couldn’t let 2 seconds pass in silence), jolly and hypochondriatic (if that’s even a word). Go ahead and listen to someone in and around northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin just once. With age, we talk about our bodies, illnesses and diseases more each year. We can diagnose better than any doctor around and suggest medicine for it as well. After a couple hours of listening to walleye fishing stories and Barbara’s inevitable looming divorce (with the obligatory ‘I hate to gossip, but…’), we had much fun imitating on the walk to lunch.

The famous Brusio Viaduct.

We sat down at Albergo Altavilla and ordered the 4-course regional lunch, which would give us our pizzocheri noodles and bresaola (like beef prosciutto). We overheard the midwesterners order pizza, extremely disappointed and shocked to hear that these (northern) Italians hadn’t caught on to what made their country such a great hit. Alas, they ordered regular pasta with red sauce–a safe alternative.

Our demi-bottle of Valtellina Nebbiolo, a wonderfully silky textured, fruity red (nothing at all like Piemonte’s version) seemed a perfect choice with what was to come. We had just seen some vineyards outside town, so the choice was a no brainer (not that there were many more to be honest). We dug into the first course: Chiscioi Tiranesi con Cicoria, a kind of fried breaded cheese patty with a side salad. There were three of them. I wolfed down two in a matter of seconds. I was starving. Meanwhile, I noticed my partner clear his throat and get that look in his eye.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask with trepidation…

‘Nothing… I think.’ He clears his throat again, heavy in thought.

‘?’

‘Well,’ he explains, “There may be a little buckwheat in this breading. Probably not, but…My tongue is starting to tingle…”

See, we are both quite allergic to the black, deadly flour. I begin to panic as I look down and see my near demolished plate. We frantically google ‘Tirano buckwheat food’ and there it is. Countless sights discussing this region’s famous Alpine dishes, such as pizzoccheri and chiscioi, made with hearty, buckwheat flour: ‘For hardcore buckwheat lovers ONLY!’

Shit.

First he goes to, well, rid himself of the infestation in the bathroom before it gets too bad. Then it is my turn. We cancel our order for lethal pizzoccheri and opt instead for plain, potato gnocchi with red sauce, a safe choice. The staff was wonderful and very responsive, confirming that yes indeed there is a lot of buckwheat in their cuisine and of course they would accommodate.

My throat is still suffering from the experience, the black flour having penetrated its sides and swollen it within minutes. We were so fortunate he called it so soon. Even as I write this, I can scarcely swallow well. It is the only allergy I have that is so severe. I break into hives, fall asleep, swell up. And Jonathan is arguably worse. A strange star-crossed syndrome we both somehow share.

Death on a platter.

Our highly anticipated lunch became sparkling water, Benadryl  and gnocchi, followed by a hazy train ride to Milan. But even with that, we found a way to laugh about our high maintenance, wussy allergies, complete with a backdrop of beautiful lake Como.

euro scribbles: the naked truth about euro hot tubbing.

travel

I could write chronologically, but honestly, there are those moments that just need a lexical photograph.

We spend our last full day here in St. Moritz exploring a new area for nordic skiing: Val Roseg in and around Pontresina (only about 5 min drive from St. Moritz in the next town over). This 14k trail is a slow, steady climb to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere Morteratch (its isolation making me wonder at the prefix of that name)…

It is my third day cross-country skiing in a row. It is my third day cross-country skiing…ever. In a word (or three), I am sore. Reaching the restaurant is like climbing a fourteener. My mind is in overdrive coaxing one foot in front of the next. When I sit down to order, I realize I am famished. I have a salad and bolognese with a glass of cannonau (aka grenache) from Sardinia. It tastes just like my aunt’s spaghetti we used to have on summer nights in northwoods Wisconsin. It is soothing and nostalgic. Free of frills or pretense. An unassuming bite in the middle of the mountains.

I feel lucky. So damn lucky sometimes.

I feel even luckier as I start the descent. Sure, it involves a few tumbly falls. They don’t call me ‘Crashley’ for nothing. But it is downhill. It takes a third of the time as the ascent. I am relieved and tired.

random abandoned house along the way...

We hop on a bus that winds up taking us through every last town that side of St. Moritz then back again to where we got on forty-five minutes earlier. Only then does it go on to our final destination forty-five more minutes (or 5 miles) further. To say Jonathan and I were a wee bit over it by the time we got back is a slight understatement. But the sauna and warm tub (not so much ‘hot’) feels all the better.

As we shift our peepers away from what has to be the 8th geriatric penis in 24 hours, we laugh silently with our eyes at the contrast as a tall, hot German (Swiss?) in a string bikini slips into the tub. I turn to my partner and say, “It’s never the ones you want to undress, eh?” We migrate to the sauna for a final fry, when German babe follows five minutes later. Bikini-less.

I have never been in a room with a significant other and a naked person of the opposite sex, let alone with my fiancee and a young woman that happens to have killer abs, a tight butt and perky boobs. I wonder at this moment if it is super awkward for him. I almost want to laugh out loud as we carry on with our discussion of dinner and tomorrow’s events. But I refrain and ignore the rather sexy elephant in our sizzling hot room. Get over it, I tell myself–it’s Europe. But still… you are talking to someone who used to change in the bathroom stall in high school (in my underwear for God’s sake) and never, ever been to so much as a topless beach. What a prude.

We make our way back to the room, shower and snuggle in for some down time before dinner in an hour or so. And I think to myself, as he lays here beside me now taking a nap… what a perfect gentleman.

Oh these traveling moments. Priceless.

euro scribbles: the start of a great swiss adventure…

travel, Wine Blog

I am tongue-tied. The thought of rewriting my experience has me at a loss, for words always fail me when I depend on them to relay what my eyes have seen, ears have heard and tongue has tasted. Alas, I will give it a meager go, and tell you a story about my time here in Switzerland…(well, mostly in Switzerland).

It began with a horrid transatlantic flight, where babies were screaming, a fifteen pound bag fell on my head, the earphones were blasting to a high volume every 45 min or so to be sure I was sufficiently damaged by arrival and a couple sleeping pills that not only failed at their only purpose in life but  rather left me extremely anxious searching for the nearest exit when at once I remembered I was 5 miles high for the next seven hours. Tap, tap, tap…

Two hours of sleep and a transfer in London, I arrived in Milan a sight to sore eyes. But I could care less. There is no amount of awful travel that will keep me from an adventure. Really, it wouldn’t feel as gratifying if it were so easy. Right?

We hit up one of Jonathan’s favorite Italian restaurants the first night: Dal Bolognese. It was right next door to our hotel: Principe di Savoia. Walking in, you might have thought it wasn’t such a brilliant find. We were there alone in an overstaffed restaurant. Music was nonexistent. The waiters watched like hawks for our next move. ‘You ready is order?’ ‘You need a water?’ ‘You are have question?’ Yeesh. I was paranoid while eating my caprese to use the funny looking balsamic vinegar pourer-thingy for fear I would pour it incorrectly or too much… and they would see it and correct this ugly american.The caprese was mediocre at best this time of year, but I should have known better. For one thing, the waiter gave a disapproving look, yet couldn’t find a way to explain. For another, who has heard of fresh tomatoes in January. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t read their menu! And they could scarcely translate. It was safe.

By the time the next course arrived–their famous tagliatelle bolognese–I understood why it was Jonathan’s favorite. Wow. It was amazing. Perfect proportion of meat to sauce to noodle. Deliciously al dente. I looked up and saw that, as if with the snap of a finger, the large room was full of people. Many business men in suits carrying on their meetings with a meal as well as couples, girlfriends, etc. It was a happening place. Now, I couldn’t wave down a waiter if I was topless.

We washed it all down with a 2006 Castello Romitorio Brunello di Montalcino. It had been a long time since we had wine from this lovely Tuscan region. A hearty Sangiovese seemed like a perfect idea with our hearty bolognese. And it was. Though it smelled of infanticide with a hint of potential first thing out of the bottle, it opened up a bit with some time bringing on alpine notes of red berry fruit, a medicinal throw nack to luden’s cherry cough drops and even a little minty. This and the likely suspects of leathery, tart cherry, cocoa dust.

Day 2

At the Gare Centrale di Milano, we waited for the train to Geneva and munched on a ham and cheese sandwich at the cafe. It was 7:30a and coffee was a non-negotiable. A few bites in, I politely reminded the server of my coffee. But he had not forgotten. It was apparently not appropriate with my savory option, so I had to wait until I finished. I wolfed it down fairly fast. However, my sweet fiancee took his sweet time (he is NOT a coffee addict). Apparently, I also had to wait until he was done as well. So all I succeeded in doing was getting a belly ache and a disgusted look from the staff. Alas, I was finally given my heroine.

We passed by some incredible little towns. One of which, Stresa, I have concluded I must return to one day. It was a quaint hillside village overlooking the alps and Lake Maggiore. Apparently it is home to some noteworthy jazz festivals, gardens and religious monuments.

Coming up on Geneva, with Lac Leman off to the left, I saw a lonely swan floating along. What was she doing there? I searched, suddenly determined to find its mate. But there was no other. A little research, and I learned most swans, the largest of the duck family, travel in flocks. Not this one.

A light lunch at the world’s weirdest hotel out by the airport and near the large sports expo center–The Starling–and I learned the meaning of the expression ‘wine is cheaper than water in Europe’, as I begrudgingly handed over $46 for a salad, a cup of soup and water (the water alone at $7). Yep, at an airport hotel.

Walking to dinner, we passed through an awesome little street in downtown Geneva–Rue Chapponiere. If you should ever visit this grand city, I recommend you check it out. I know I surely will! A little wine shop and delicatessen with meats hung high sits on the corner. It is called Il Monte Bianco. And it is my dream shop. If only we could sell meat and wine under one retail roof in Denver without all the rigamaroo. Across the street is an adorable regional restaurant called Au Petite Chalet. A couple doors down we watched some people dig into some traditional grub at La Trois Fondue, and we eye-balled the yummy fare at Post Cafe. An idyllic street we were happy to stumble upon.

We decided to play fancy and have a cocktail at the Four Seasons. Fancy it was. I decided it needed 2002 Laurent Perrier to pair the moment. Heavy laden with wood, diamond-covered women and Patek Phillipe watches on wrists (hell, even the dogs wore fur), it was candyland for the untrained eye.

We went to one of our favorite spots for a bite: Bistrot du Boeuf Rouge to get back to reality and find that the sub $50 wine bottle still exists. We enjoyed oysters, beef tips and perch from Lac du Monde. This is a cozy place full of black-rimmed intellectuals, laughter and laid-back hearty fare.

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