June 2008


Last night really felt like summer as we demolished our composed salad of bell peppers, tomatoes (though really, even the Early Girls aren’t quite ready unfortunately), eggs, anchovies, sardines, avocado, onions and potatoes (shout out to the Geman Butterballs from Full Belly Farm!) and washed it down with a glass of southern French rosé. The only thing more Provencal than Salade Nicoise is  rosé wine. We had Mas Grand Plagniol’s Costieres des Nimes rosé made from Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsaut. The unusually large proportion of Syrah made it a darker and meatier rosé than most. It had very a slight tannic bite that made me think it would be great with a hamburger. But it was excellent with the salad too. Not only did the experience promote summery feelings, it also reinforced my opinion that regional foods and wines make the best pairings. Plenty of other wines would go with a this salad, specifically light, crisp, white wines; but would they go as well with the dish as a rosé did? I think not. The eggs provide a richness that might make a light white seem feeble, whereas rosé — especially this one– has more body to compete with that richness. If you are ever at a loss for what to drink with what you eat…figure out where the dish comes from and find a wine from or near that region.

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Last week was the annual tasting of Terry Theise’s Austrian and German wines, this time for the 2007 vintage. The event took place at Ame Restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. I’m excited about this vintage because it was cooler weather than 2006 which provided big voluptuous wines, only some of which retained sufficient acidity.  In 2007, the acid levels are classicly crisp, the wines more lean, and thus more to my taste.  Although Austria and Germany have the potential to be very different climatically, 2007 was a similar vintage for both countries. There were over 250 wines, and 15 winemakers present at Ame.  It is next to impossible to taste 250 wines and give each sufficient attention, not to mention the fact that some tables (Nikolaihof and Donnhoff) are always suffering from a bottleneck, so I tasted selectively. Among those, my favorites of the day were the Schloss Gobelsburg NV Brut Reserve which was elegant, rich and frothy. The Gobelsberg Gruner Veltliner “Lamm” was amazing! Full of mineral and lime and acid! Hiedler’s Gruner Veltliner “Loess” and “November” were both wonderful, but quite different from each other. The Loess is a lively and interesting representation of Gruner, very drinkable at the table with just about anything. The November (meaning the grapes weren’t harvested until November!) was thick, spicy, rich and intense, but completely balanced by a streak of acidity. The Jamek Gruner Ried Achleiten Smaragd was also spicy and rich and excellent. From Germany I liked the A.J. Adam Dhron Riesling Kabinett, brimming with apricot and lime and Mosel-ness and…acid! Reuscher-Haart blew me away, they had four wines — Piesporter Treppchen Riesling, Piesporter Goldtropchen Riesling Kabinett, Piesporter Goldtropchen Riesling Spatlese #15 and #12. I completely adored them all. The Spatlesen drank as though they were dry to me, refreshing, acid, complex. And they (for now) are priced well for the dinner table! Geil was another happy moment for me. everything was very appealingly restrained, giving nothing away to quickly, but making you ponder over the wines. And Leitz, who was able to make elegant, acid wines in 2006 making them one of my favorites, had set of gorgeous wines from 2007 as well. Between tables I wandered over to the buffet where the magic workers of Ame set out delightful little morsels to fill our tummies.

Bert Salomon of Undof-Salomon

 

Maria Angeles Hiedler of Weingut Hiedler

 

Stefan Rumpf of Kruger-Rumpf

 

Jakob Schneider of Weingut Schneider and Victor Diel of Schlossgut Diel

 

Eva Fricke of Leitz

 

Geil

A guest post by Marie Davenport (of the forthcoming 3323 Brewery & Distillery in San Francisco, CA).

As a brewer and, um, frequent taster of beer, lambics hold a special place in my cellar. The kumquat-like tartness mixed with the vinegary sourness that hits right in the back of the tongue, slowly coating the mouth before dissipating, the balanced nuance of the wheat and barley, the almost complete lack of discernable hop flavor, the complex and acidic aroma that varies from white wine to hay to sweat, and the delicate combination of “wild” yeasts and bacteria all make me stop what I’m doing and just say “wow.”

Lambic truly embodies its terroir. Taking a sip of Cantillon Kriek Lambic takes me straight to the Senne River Valley, surrounded by cherry orchards, drinking from a jug…   

Like a number of traditional Belgian beers, over the last several decades lambic has been a victim of changing tastes and industrialization. While the traditional version of the style is being revived by a number of brewers scattered across the US and Europe, it will never truly be the same as when it is produced in the Senne Valley. And even there, lambic is changing along with the local geography. 

Lambic is considered to be the “mother of all beers.” Brewing in Brussels began sometime in the 1200s, and the first written documents about lambics date to around 1320, making it the oldest existing beer style in the world. The first lambics, or “yellow beers,” were originally brewed in Lembeek, a village in the Senne Valley where at one point there were 600 inhabitants and 43 breweries. 

By Belgian law, lambic must be made from at least 30% (it is often more like 40%) unmalted wheat with malted barley (the dominant grain in most beers) making up the difference, and at some point in the process the unfermented beer (or wort) must be exposed to airborne yeasts. In this post-Pasteur era, exposing wort to airborne yeasts epitomizes this traditional style. Once all beer was “spontaneously fermented” with airborne yeasts. Now there is only lambic. While all brewing yeasts originated from fruit, the strains (ranging from 80-120) of yeast found in lambic are most likely a result of the breweries’ proximity to the vast cherry orchards that once covered the entire Senne Valley region. These local yeasts and bacteria have been residing in the casks, woodwork, walls, and ceilings of breweries like Cantillon since 1900, so are fully integrated into the infrastructure for now. The brewery cat, an essential part of any good lambic production facility, helps keep the yeasts airborne. Unlike in other beer styles, only aged hops (they’re ready when they start to smell like cheese) are used. The reasons are twofold: 1) the bitterness of fresh hops does not combine well with the natural sourness of a lambic; 2) the antimicrobial powers in fresh hops will kill off too much of the bacteria needed for proper fermentation, but are still potent enough to keep the acetobacter in check, giving a nice balance to a beer that would otherwise turn into malt vinegar.    

If procuring the necessary ingredients doesn’t seem onerous enough, the actual process of making lambic is itself an arduous process. A Dutch law introduced in 1822 (and maintained when Belgium became independent) taxed the size of the mash tun — the vessel where water and grain are mixed to turn the starches into sugars — forcing brewers to save money by creating a very dense and cloudy, or “turbid,” mash. I’ll spare you the details of this type of mashing (if anyone is interested, I will be happy to explain) but will say that extracting starches with this type of mashing is much more labor intensive and time consuming than the English style of using a single infusion. (Think several hours compared to one.) Traditional lambic brewers swear by this turbid mash method and still use it today. After all the sugars are extracted from the grain, the wort is boiled for at least three hours, sometimes all day (a “regular” boil for non-Belgian beers is more like 90 min), and then transferred to a coolship, a shallow vessel in a drafty part of the brewery, where it is allowed to cool overnight and enjoy its first exposure to yeasts and bacteria. When it has cooled sufficiently, the wort is transferred to casks, also home to a variety of yeasts, where it is allowed to age for 6 months to several years. 

Most lambics are blended before drinking, as the aging process greatly affects the taste. A young lambic (6 months — 1 year old), which you will rarely find to drink straight, is considerably sweet and slightly carbonated, and is generally blended into a gueuze (a blend of 1, 2, and 3 year old lambics) or with other older vintages. Older lambics tend to be dry with less carbonation, having cider or wine notes and various levels of sourness. Faro, aged three years, is one of the few lambics available unblended, usually on draft, and is often sweetened with sugar to taste.  

Only a handful of traditional Belgian lambic brewers still exist. The ones with distribution in the US include Cantillon, 3Fonteinen, Girardin, Boon/Oud Beersel, and Timmermans.  Cantillon is of special importance because of the public stance for traditional production methods that brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy promotes. After he married into the family run brewery in 1978, he set into motion the public argument for traditional lambic brewing by forgoing newer brewing practices, such as trading in wooden vessels for stainless steel and adding syrups or saccharin for sweetening. He also advocates the use of organic and local ingredients when possible. Most of the current large purveyors of sweetened lambic (such as the easy to find Lindemann’s or De Keersmaker lines) still use saccharin and syrups, while Cantillon prefers to use real fruit, letting the yeasts devour the sugars to create a dry beverage.  

Industrialization is not the only change in lambic country. While Cantillon was once able to buy all of the fruit they use in their beers from local farmers, they can now only purchase cherries locally. And the traditional brewing year of October to May now ends in March, at least at Cantillon, where Jean-Pierre cites global warming as the malefactor. 

Traditional lambic is not your run of the mill beer. It embodies time-honored practices and is truly a product of its place. While certain production methods can be replicated, the complex combination of yeasts and bacteria in each bottle cannot. Because of this, no two bottles or vintages are alike. Next time you open a bottle of traditional lambic, take great pleasure in your experience. It will not be repeated. 

 

 

 

I recently had a business lunch at the Chez Panisse Café. I was my first time at Chez Panisse, and although it didn’t blow my mind, it was a great place to do business. We opened 3 bottles of wine, beginning with a Ligurian treat — Bisson’s 2006 Colline del Genovesato Pigato. This was the perfect wine for my first course (see below). The Pigato grape is interesting, refreshing, textural and crisp. Next we opened a bottle that the host of the lunch had brought with him, Jean-Marc Morey’s 2002 Beaune Greves Blanc. It was delicious, but even at 6 years old, it still needed time for the interesting secondary aromas to develop. It still tasted about as fresh as the day it was bottled! The final bottle was going to be a ’96 red burgundy of some kind, but the bottle was corked. So sad! In the end the host picked Jacques Puffeney’s 2004 Poulsard from the menu, and as a truly light-bodied red, it was probably a better match for everyone’s food anyway. Speaking of food, I had a fava bean puree on flatbread with sliced radishes draped across the top. It was very tasty. The second course was penne with asparagus and spring onions and a cream sauce. I would ordinarily never order pasta with cream sauce, but because it was Chez Panisse I was tempted.  It was good, but again…not mind blowing. Solid as a rock though. For dessert we split a couple bowls of Bing cherries from Frog Hollow Farm and pluots from Flavorella. The fruit was excellent. Fruit is always the best dessert (well, tied with cheese, although ideally you have a cheese plate first, then a bowl of fruit). Our east coast host was so alarmed that cherries were already in season, making the joke, “Were these picked this year?”

 

My wonderful little brother came down from the mountains the other day bearing gifts. A black eel squash seedling for us to plant in our backyard and a couple of biodynamically-raised rib-eye steaks. Last night we grilled up the steaks (salt, pepper, olive oil) and man, they were good! Incredibly flavorful, the essence of beef. This was my first opportunity to taste biodynamic meat, and so far, so good. It was rich and vibrant. They were from the Decatur farm up in Covelo, Mendicino County. We opened a bottle of Anjou Rouge from Chateau Soucherie (served slightly chilled) and the tannic bite and earthy richness of the Cabernet Franc went very well with these excellent steaks. Swiss chard and brown rice completed the meal. Very satisfying!

When I began studying wine I had my mind blown by how much there was to learn! I spent four years studying wine (in this particular program — needless to say, it’s a lifelong process) learning the nitty gritty about soil types in Bulgaria and the pruning techniques in Japan, and about a quarter of the way through we spent a week talking about beer. I felt like my mind had to slam on the brakes and take a new direction. There are actually very few similarities between wine-making and beer-making. Not to mention that fact that the world of beer is as large and varied as the world of wine, and how did they think we were supposed to learn it all in a week!?? We weren’t of course, but that brief peek into the realm of mash tuns and worts was very tantalizing for me, and I vowed to spend some time with it later. I haven’t, yet, but I do have a couple of friends who are veritable experts on the subject and a ready source of information and advice (one of them will be writing some guest posts in the near future!). What I have learned about beer since my week of study, I learned while drinking at Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn.

 It was there that I learned about my love of lambic brew from Belgium, especially gueuze. These sour and complicated beers are very reminiscent of wine, and that is no doubt why they are my favorite kinds of beer. I’ve decided that Cantillon is my favorite brewery and Cantillon’s Vigneronne is my favorite beer. I like everything about it, from the sour Muscat-y flavor to the anthemic label (designed in 1989 by Raymond Goffin). From the website:

“The name Vigneronne Cantillon was given in 1987. This name reminds us that, while it belongs to the beer patrimony, the spontaneous fermentation, the ageing in the barrels for several years and the addition of grapes make it a distant cousin of certain white wines.”

Beyond learning of my fondness for them, I know so little about how they are made, the history behind them, or indeed the names of very many breweries who make them. Check back on this blog for that kind of information soon though, and from a real expert.