Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side with Willi Bründlmayer

Last night, R. and I had the opportunity to meet Willi Bründlmayer in NYC. Pretty excited for this, as we've been drinking quite a few of his wines recently, all of which had raised questions for me. Apart from formal tasting dinners on other nights, Herr Bründlmayer was hosting an informal tasting at Atria. I had contacted the restaurant to get the details, to explain that we would be driving up from Philadelphia, so our arrival time was not certain, and that R. was a vegetarian, so any help in that direction would be appreciated. Well, it turned out to be quite the evening.

First of all, parking karma was in full effect, as we found a spot right at the door of the restaurant. Going in, we were surprised to see that there were only a few people present, it was never more than 7 of us. Herr Bründlmayer spoke of his family, his land, and of course his wines. A wonderful storyteller. And of course, we tasted his wines.

2004 Sekt - smoky but restrained nose, hints of black pepper. Medium+ body, spritz, quinine, lentil, light toast. Crisp but juicy, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and dosed with a Chardonnay sweet wine. I mentioned that we had recently tried the '95 vintage of this wine, a very nice bottle, and he said we were lucky to have a good bottle, as not all corks have held up so well.

2005 Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein "Lyra" - pretty nose of white flowers, apples, pear. Rich and viscous, slate, oriental spice, and a pleasant bitter finish. A bit round at this time, which was surprising. I mentioned the '92 Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein Alte Reben (the provenance of this vineyard makes for a truly delightful story) we'd had for New Year's, how lively and fresh that still seemed, and he was absolutely thrilled, agreeing that it was an exceptional wine. I mentioned feeling torn about diving right back into our last remaining bottle, but Herr Bründlmayer left no doubt as to his opinion - "go for instant gratification!" He also explained his preferences for his wines - upon release for analytical drinking, a minimum of 7 years for contemplation. But, if it's for an occasion where wine is merely a social lubricant, 3-4 years of age, a quiet period for his wines. He explained that in his opinion, his wines paired best with food at this age.

N.V. Rose Sekt - technically a non-vintage wine, but made only with fruit from the 2005 harvest, the first release of this wine. Equal parts Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt, dosed with a St. Laurent "grappa." A wonderful wine - bright, red fruited nose, but on the palate, smoky, herbal, meaty, lots of mineral and earth, great presence, very delicious.

2002 Grüner Veltliner Ried Käferberg - aged in acacia barrels, which was confirmed as the origin of the creamy, honeyed tones in this wine. Quite fat and viscous, nose of meadow flowers and grass, complemented by herbal and bitter notes on the palate. Round, with a touch of acidity on the back end, particularly as it warmed up. Really not my preferred style of G.V., but I can see its appeal.

2003 St. Laurent Ried Ladner - came across slightly differently than when I had this with J. and S. in Kyoto last month, more complex - on the nose, baking spice, brown sugar, leather and funk, and on the palate, tomato juice, berries, spice, even a bit of beefiness. More enjoyable, but still missing that "wildness" I'm used to from the Burgenland St. Laurents.

So, this was a major question I had - this is the first Kamptal St. Laurent I've had - most are from Burgenland, and I wanted to know why. According to Herr Bründlmayer, St. Laurent was once the primary red varietal of the region, but economics led to pulling out these vines in favor of riesling and grüner veltliner. On the other hand, Burgenland, the natural home to Blaufränkisch, was apparently looking to diversify away from this tannin monster. Justly famous for the botrytised dessert wines, but not successful with dry whites, they took to St. Laurent.

Now, some years ago, Herr Bründlmayer had heard that St. Laurent was in danger of becoming extinct in Kamptal, and he took it upon himself to start working with this varietal. He noted that St. Laurent is highly susceptible to botrytis (which is a famed feature of Burgenland), and that despite the Kamptal's high humidity, it is in his opinion a better climate for the grape. For now, I still prefer the Burgenland versions, but I'm interested to see how this progresses. Of course, now I have to wonder, what is the natural expression of this grape?

Zöbinger Heiligenstein

So these were the wines of the tasting. Lots of interesting conversation followed on, talking about various trends in winemaking - thinning, whole cluster fermentation, hand-tilling versus machine, and so on. The one that got a wee chuckle though was irrigation - turns out Herr Bründlmayer is the officer in charge of the Heiligentstein Irrigation Society and makes the decision on when to turn on the taps!

A wonderful, wonderful evening! But, wait, there's more! As we were getting up to leave, Herr Bründlmayer, Atria's wine manager, and Terry Thiese's portfolio manager asked us if we would join them for dinner (they said that since we were coming up "all the way" from Philadelphia, they wanted the night to be special for us!) Dinner was at Kurt Gutenbrunner's Wallsé - two Michelin stars, a fully Austrian menu and, with the exception of Champagne, a 100% Austrian wine list. Herr Gutenbrunner joined our dining party, and ensured fully vegetarian courses specially prepared for R. as well.

To start, something bubbly, but I didn't quite catch the name, might have been the N.V. Steininger Sekt - we got turned around driving to the restaurant, so they'd already jumped in. Never mind - parking karma still in effect, as we again got a spot directly in front. Some grizzled fellows sitting at an outside table, but apparently expecting us. Turns out it was the chef and a friend. On to the first course.

For R., a Boston lettuce salad with pumpkin seeds, radishes, and kürbiskernöl - Styrian pumpkin seed oil (one of my favorite "secret weapons" in the kitchen). Herr Gutenbrunner explained that when he opened Wallsé, he wanted to make a simple salad that reflected the fresh garden salads of his youth - greens and pumpkin seeds. Such a simple, but really delicious preparation.

For me, it was ramps soup with scallop ravioli, paired with the 2007 Hiedler Grüner Veltliner Thal, quintessential wine - lentils, smoke, mineral, stone-fruit pits, white flowers and white pepper, crisp and lively, little satellites of flavour orbiting around, served in the Riedel Sommelier G.V. glasses. Lovely glasses, chartreuse-green stems. Herr Gutenbrunner explained that Max Riedel hand carries these to him, and also that a certain musical guest had an "unforgiveable" habit of putting ice cubes in his wine and breaking these particular glasses - so much so, he's been cut off from their use.

Next course was a medley of mixed vegetables for R., and for me, I believe this was a grilled trout with creamed spinach, diced apples and pine nuts, paired with the 2005 Spaetrot Gebeshuber Grosse Reserve, a blend of zierfandler and rotgipfler, aged in oak barriques. From Gumpoldskirchen! I say (!) because we were talking about this village at the tasting. A lovely wine, nose and palate in harmony - smoky, cherry(!) notes, pear, flowers, honey, petrichor, and a touch of vanilla. Delicious, and not shy. Surprisingly good with the trout, very impressive!

For mains, R. had rosti and white asparagus (looking for soul food, Austrian style?), while I had seared monkfish with ramps risotto and morels. Paired with the 2005 Graf Hardegg Viognier from the Weinviertel, and apparently the only grower/farmer of viognier in the country. Total plantings of 1 hectare. Quite a clean, rich nose, stone fruit, honey, flowers, hints of vanilla. Round, viscous, rich, but not at all cloying, just enough leanness.

Finally, dessert. The things Austrians do with chocolate, it should be criminal! Time to go home (despite protestations that we should spend the night and hang out). All in all, a seriously top-notch evening! Dinner was an unexpected surprise, great conversations, a wonderful inside look at a restaurant of this calibre, and some very engaging personalities. Will definitely visit Herr Bründlmayer next time we're in Austria, and we'll certainly be back to Wallsé, I don't think Herr Gutenbrunner will forgive us if we don't!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kira Honjozo [1 Koku - 84]

A honjozo from the Suehiro Shuzo in Fukushima. SMV of +15(!), acidity 1.4, 15% abv. No prizes for guessing that this is going to be crisp and dry! Sharp, fleeting over the palate, but with a long, mild, but persistent bitterness, and a touch of nuttiness on the very back end. Quite powerful, perhaps a bit singular but I can imagine this to be a stand-up match to something savoury.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lion Stout (Sri Lanka)

lion stout
My first encounter with this beer in about 10 years. The setting then was probably more interesting - sitting at the bar of the Lion Beer Pub in Nuwara Eliya, a hill station in central Sri Lanka. But, what the hell was I waiting for??? Dark colour, chocolate, caramel, coffee berry and roasted malt on the nose. On the palate, super creamy, chocolate all the way, chocolate milk, a touch of cafe au lait and molasses. So smooth and creamy, a bit of bitter cherry-tinged acidity on the finish, no telling heat, no way this passes for 8% abv. Superb stout.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ohkagura [1 Koku - 85 ]

ohkaguraThis is a futsushu - a non-premium sake or "regular" sake, from the Shiragiku Shuzo in Okayama Prefecture, apparently made from a local rice variety called akebono. SMV +1, acidity 1.1, 15% abv. Quite a mild nose, rice sweetness, on the palate, rich, full-bodied, and lightly sweet, not terribly complex, but quite clean, with a lightly bitter edge once it comes to room temperature. Performs best with a nice chill though, and very easy drinking. Proof that non-premium sake can provide good, clean drinking. Must say though that an imported futsushu is rather a rarity in the U.S.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Taruhei Gokujo Gin Sumiyoshi [1 Koku - 86]

A tokubetsu junmai from Yamagata Prefecture. Semaibuai 60%, SMV +5, acidity 2.0, amino acidity 1.9, 16% abv. Taruhei, as the name suggests, specialises in taruzake - sake aged in sugi - Cryptomeria or Japanese cedar. The first indication of that is the golden colour. Pronounced, rich rice aroma. On the palate, the sugi flavour is obvious, but by no means overpowering - rich, full bodied, wood spice over white-fleshed melon, an epic struggle between body and bite, with body just winning out, but balanced overall. Long, pleasingly bitter finish.

I'd not normally go for so much as a go (180ml) of taruzake, much less an isshobin, but I'd read this is one of the most idiosyncratic, polarising producers out there, so I couldn't resist. A winner!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jerez, My Dear?

de la frontera
Last night, R. and I attended a sherry tasting, with special guest César Saldana, the managing director of Spain’s Consejo Regulador de las D.O. ‘Jerez-Xérès-Sherry’. A fine tasting covering the breadth of Jerez wines - dry to sweet, fortified and not, some but not all currently available in the U.S.

2008 Barbadillo Palomino Vino de la Tierra
Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz
100% Palomino
12% abv.

An unfortified wine, fermented in INOX, palest yellow chiffon in colour. Light, subtle nose of white flowers and grass. Very clean and fresh, low acidity, light and dry, but with surprising presence. Petrichor, lime ash... very minerally, nuttiness, like unsalted popcorn, pleasant bitters on the finish - taste disappears, but mild oral anaesthesia persists. Very nice. This wine is essentially the "starter" for all the solera method fortified wines.

Gonzalez-Byass "Tio Pepe" Fino Sherry
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
100% Palomino
15% abv

Even in Spain, this is considered a "classic" Fino sherry. Pale yellow. Very floral nose (no pun intended) - yes, also an obvious Flor/yeast nose, almonds, apples, raw honey. Though light bodied, quite a bit more viscous than the Barbadillo. Very dry, nutty, quite pungent, grainy, chalky, green and bitter. It's what you expect. But, really paired tremendously with boquerones - brined anchovies.

Barbadillo "Solear" Manzanilla
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
D.O. Manzanilla
100% Palomino
15% abv

The only style of sherry to have it's own separate D.O., it is made with exactly the same method as the Fino of Jerez de la Frontera (which is a city in the Andalucian interior), whereas Sanlúcar de Barrameda is on the Costa de la Luz. While they share a similarly chalky albariza soil, it is the particular strain of yeast that sets Manzanilla apart. Again a pale yellow, noticeably different on both the nose and palate from the Tio Pepe. The Flor character on the nose is more subtle and elegant, less yeasty, with a topnote of camomile. On the palate, very soft and creamy, still dry, a touch more acidity but still quite soft. I was surprised that this paired better with the anchovies, but I did not like the match with jamón ibérico.

Lustau "Los Arcos" Dry Amontillado
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
100% Palomino
18.5% abv

So, Fino sherries are aged completely under Flor, the yeast, whereas the darker, more potent styles are done without Flor, aged oxidatively instead. Amontillado straddles that line. In a sense, Amontillado is a Fino whose Flor has Failed. However, that means it retains the characteristics of both styles, and is considered the most complex of the dry sherries. Amontillado - "wine like that of Montilla" refers to the neighbouring wine region of Montilla-Moriles, which is most famous for its dessert wines made from the Pedro Ximenez grape. Beautiful gem-like topaz colour. Very complex nose, yeast, floral, orange peel, caramel, honey, treacle, oxidised notes as well, nuttiness, palm sugar. Lovely nose. On the palate, very dry, but with a surprisingly sweet, caramel entry which burns off quickly, leaving nutty and bitter treacle notes. Tight, bright acidity up front, medium bodied, and a very smooth, soft finish.

Lustau "Emperatriz Eugenia" "Very Rare - Dry" Oloroso
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
100% Palomino
20% abv

Moving into the dark stuff, this was a deep amber. Raisiny nose, honey, treacle, touch of rainwater. A rather sweet nose. On the palate, full-bodied, viscous, good acidity, caramel, vanilla, treacle, nutty, and more bitters, but impeccably dry. Surprising - nice move! This was both of our WOTN, with the Amontillado and the Matusalem (in a couple rounds) snapping at the heels for me.

Williams & Humbert "Dry Sack - 15 Years Old" Oloroso
Palomino & Pedro Ximénez blend
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
20.5% abv

This is a style that was developed for the English market. Amber with orange highlights. A creamy nose, more subtle than the Lustau Oloroso, molasses, vanilla, flan, egg cream, rum-raisin. Surprisingly, this was also lighter in body than the Lustau. Medium bodied, surprisingly up front, fully sweet, with a short but bitter finish. Soft, decent acidity, but really didn't bring much complexity. Didn't much care for this. R. and the other ladies at the table got the giggles on this one though.

Gonzalez-Byass "Matusalem" "Dulce VORS" Oloroso
Palomino & Pedro Ximénez blend
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
20.5% abv

VORS inidicates that the wines have a minimum of 30 years in age - 20 years in cask and a further 10 in solera. Treacly brown colour. A surprising note of volatile acidity! Yes, toffee and caramel, vanilla and raisins, baking spice and butter, all backed by a touch of pickle juice! Crazy, and intoxicating. On the palate, full on, intense, full bodied, viscous, bright sour elements, such as in a good bitter cooking chocolate, creamy mouthfeel. Bewildering, beguiling, and delicious. Sent by the Bodega, as it is sadly not available in PA.

Williams & Humbert "Don Guido" "VOS - 20 Years Old"
D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
100% Pedro Ximénez
18% abv

This style of wine is made from "raisins", as you would find with the appassimento style wines of Italy. Nearly black in colour, intense nose of coffee, licourice, prunes, burnt sugar. Mr. Saldana explained at the outset that the prune note is common with this style, and I don't know if it was that the crowd was not familiar with PX, but the prune association was a turn-off. Do Americans not like prunes? Well, more for me then, thank you very much. This is the velvet glove on iron fist - silky smooth, bright acidity, and packing a wallop. Delicious!

Mr. Saldana was an engaging host, who is clearly on a mission to bring a greater selection of fine sherry to the U.S. To paraphrase, "[We need to make people aware that there is more to sherry than just] this horrible stuff you people have in this country for cooking." A good start, I think.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


e-dong makkoli
Paekun-san, Korea
80% rice, 20% wheat
6% abv

Makkoli, also known as nongju, or farmer's liquor. Very similar to Japan's doburoku. A milky, fresh-fermented rice beverage. The Koreans also make a sake-like beverage called cheong-ju - essentially, allow the mash to continue to ferment for a couple more weeks, then press and filter. Very delicious stuff. Makkoli - earthy, slightly pasty but still thin, both sweet and lightly sour - I actually prefer mine more sour than this, but you take what you can get. It's been a couple of years since I've had this, just had the craving so I picked some up at an Asian market, and to snack on, made a batch of pajeon (Korean savoury pancakes).


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sake Scandal at El Bulli

So I was working in the kitchen, with the TV on in the background, Andrew Zimmer's program Bizarre Foods. Not really paying attention but then I heard Ferran Adria - the famed chef of El Bulli in Spain. You know, molecular gastronomy, 3 stars from Michelin, rock-star treatment. So, I'm working in my slightly more modest kitchen, making my slightly more modest lunch (no plasma torches, no LN2... I do have a microwave though...) Anyways, I hear the words "sake sorbet" - oh, now that could be interesting.

Except, no! What on earth are they using????? It's not the greatest picture in the world, and perhaps you won't recognise the kanji, but you can bet that I did, and I am appalled.



Friday, April 3, 2009

Two Tokubetsu Junmai [1 Koku - 87]

two tokubetsu
Ume no Yado on the left, Suigei on the right.

Ume no Yado Nama Tokubetsu Junmai from Nara Prefecture. Made from Yamada Nishiki and Nihon-bare rice. Semaibuai 55%, SMV +5, acidity 1.3, 15.5% abv. Lively, spicy nose, dare I say even bazaar spices. On the palate... surprisingly round, the nama character is a bit subdued, it's even on the off-dry side, despite the numbers... melons, corn husk... but... this is shocking... there is a clear sense of cedar spice. Is this taru-zake??? This tastes like it was stored or aged in cryptomeria (Japanese "cedar"). It's a mild but obvious flavour, well integrated, but I can't get it out of my head. An isshobin of namazake is a tall order to begin with... taru-zake is really pushing the envelope.

Suigei (Drunken Whale) Tokubetsu Junmai from Kochi Prefecture. Made from Matsuyama Mitsui rice. Semaibuai 55%, SMV +7, acidity 1.6, 15% abv. The domestic label for this brand is so much cooler, has nothing but an illustration of a whale. Dark brooding nose... black licourice and banana... on the palate... whack! makes a strong impression, bright acidity, more banana and licourice, lemon, nutty, rice husk... very complex. So much fuller than I would have expected, but the acidity is tingly and leaves the tongue lightly anaesthetised. I liked this, but R. is in strong opposition.