Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pairing by Instinct

There is only one rule that I follow when pairing wine with food: when drinking an old wine, eat something simple that will allow the complexities of the wine to come forth. Other than that, I think it's best to follow one's instincts when it comes to pairings, even if it means doing things that fall outside of the normal comfort zones, things that simply don't sound right on paper.

Last week, two opportunities arose for me to throw caution to the wind and make an outside-the-box wine pairing, and I succeeded once. The other time I second guessed myself and was punished by the higher powers (who apparently have nothing better to do than to preside over my wine pairing attempts).

The first opportunity involved radishes. I love radishes, all kinds of radishes. I've been buying these big green winter radishes lately, pretty spicy ones, and I'm trying to figure out more ways to eat them raw - they're so good for you.

I could make kim chi radish, but I don't know how to make kim chi. I could take paper-thin slices and toss them with green salad, but there is no good lettuce at my markets this time of year. I've been grating the radishes, and drizzling them with a bit of sesame oil and a few drops of good soy sauce. I'm the only one in the house who likes this dish, but I think it's delicious. Anyway, the other night I was alone in the house with the sleeping kids and I made this dish.

I don't know that there is a table wine that makes sense for this dish. I wanted sake, but I never seem to have any in the house. The idea of dry sherry flickered across my mind and I just went with it. I opened a bottle of La Cigarerra Manzanilla en Rama, $13.50 (375 ml), De Maison Selections. The "En Rama" designation means that the wine is barely filtered, a rarity in Sherries that are shipped overseas. This wine was deeply golden with a fresh smelling nose of walnuts and ripe orchard fruit. There are other Manzanillas that I prefer at this point, wines that show more of the sea, but this was satisfying - very rich, and also somewhat delicate on the palate, it was great with the radish dish. Doubt if you like, but give it a shot yourself, and see. Don't be afraid of the stern-looking woman on the label.

A few nights later we were going to eat my version of osso buco, made with beef shank instead of veal and braised with fennel, onions, and carrots.

My gut told me to open a white wine from Friuli that's made mostly of Tocai Friuilano, as I imagined its fennel aromas, its full bodied rich texture, and its vibrant acidity being a perfect foil for our hearty dinner. "But a white wine," I thought..."with braised beef?" Oh, how I wish I had just followed my gut - I bet it would have been a great match. Instead I opened a young Sangiovese, the 2008 Montesecondo Rosso Toscana IGT, $18, Louis/Dressner Selections. I've been enjoying Sangiovese lately, and on paper this should have been a great wine - great importer, careful vineyard and cellar work, etc. But I didn't care for the wine, the alcohol was loud and the wine was imbalanced, blocky. The aromas were pure, with cool cherry fruit, but the whole package just wasn't working for me, the fruit on the palate verged on jammy.

Clearly the wine gods were reminding me to follow my instincts.

Friday, February 26, 2010


It was my friend Deetrane's birthday the other night. He celebrated by making several pots of fondue and inviting family and a few friends. Deetrane's parents have a condo in Chamonix, France, right near the border of Switzerland. He's been going there since he was a kid, and so he's quite familiar with the ritual of a fondue dinner.

We began with an excellent plate of charcuterie.

Then came the fondue. Deetrane uses white wine, slivovitz, or plum brandy, and nutmeg, in addition to Gruyère cheese. The slivovitz acts as an anti-coagulant. Bowls of dried, but not stale bread are passed around.

You skewer a piece with the fondue fork and swish it through the pot. But be careful - anyone who loses their bread in the pot must pay a dollar to get it back. In the end, the dinner cost me about $4, which is clearly a bargain.

Before the dinner, I poked around the interweb looking for fondue wine pairing suggestions. I kept reading about "neutral dry white wines," which I guess made sense, but also seemed kind of boring. In the end I decided on two wines that are from the part of France that borders Switzerland, Savoie and the Jura. The 2008 Eugene Carrel Savoie Jongieux, $11, Martin Scott Imports, was perfectly fine and I think most people preferred it to the other wine I brought, the fantastic 2005 Puffeney Arbois Melon-Queue-Rouge, $25, Neal Rosenthal Selections.

Melon-Queue-Rouge is a grape that is uncommon even in the wine-geeky Jura world. I've had only a few, and this one, Puffeney's, was far and away my favorite. Deep golden yellow, with rich oxidative nutty notes on the nose and palate, and vibrant acidity, I thought this wine was a great partner to the fondue.

Deetrane very generously opened some big-shot bottles of red Burgundy too, including 1997 Simon Bize Latricières-Chambertin, 1996 Dominique Laurent Nuits St. George 1er Cru Les Chaignots, 1999 Michel Lafarge Volnay, and a Corton whose identity I have forgotten. It's weird - the reds didn't show as well as we had hoped. As Deetrane said afterwards, "maybe they just didn't get along with the fondue." Maybe the brawny Melon-Queue-Rouge ruined our palates for the delicacy of mature Burgundy. They do drink reds before these oxidative wines in the Jura.

In any case, it was a great night and we were so glad to be a part of it - happy birthday Deetrane!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Low Yields and Surprising Wines

Changes in climate bring high yields in some years, low yields in others. Most producers keep their yields low enough to give rich and intense wines, but yields that are too low means less wine, and from a financial perspective, that can't be good. The wines are higher priced in that vintage, or the producer makes less money, neither of which are desirable outcomes.

But sometimes a low yield vintage can bring nice surprises for us wine drinkers. For example, there wasn't enough juice in 2006 for Bernard Baudry to make both Les Grézeaux, his top cuvée from gravelly hillside soils, and the cuvée Domaine, his delicious and younger-drinking wine from similar soils. So he combined them - in 2006 there was no Les Grézeaux, the juice went into cuvée Domaine. That wine is always delicious and always an excellent value, but in 2006 it is particularly good, offering some of the greater depth that is typically found in Les Grézeaux. I still have a couple bottles of 2006 cuvée Domaine and it will be interesting to see how this wine evolves.

The other night we were having my latest attempt at Bouillabaisse (pretty good indeed) and I opened a bottle of the 2007 Alice and Olivier de Moor Bourgogne Aligoté, $19, Louis/Dressner Selections. The wine was fantastic, really striking. Made in a very different style from the Aligotés by de Villaine or Roulot, both of which are also excellent. But whereas those wines are tightly wound, lean, and firm with acidity and minerality, the de Moor Aligoté was broad and oxidative and was more about lush and intense fruit. The nose had an airy, appley character, and after about a half hour the wine showed great depth and intensity of fruit on the palate. This is Aligoté - there was still plenty of acidity and the finish was definitely of a chalky mineral character. But this wine surprised me in the depth and richness of its fruit.

So I read about de Moor on the Dressner website. There are several Aligoté wines, including a "regular" wine and an old vines wine made from grapes that come from vines that are over 100 years old! Well, the wine I had must have been the Vieille Vignes, it showed such richness and intensity of fruit. No mention of it anywhere on the bottle though. Could the young vines version of this wine really be that good?

A phone call with the helpful folks at Chambers Street Wines taught me that there wasn't enough juice in 2007 for the de Moors to make the Vieille Vignes wine - there was only one Aligoté made in 2007, and it contains a blend of juice from the 100 year old vines and juice from younger vines. And this wine costs less than $20 - I wonder if the de Moors took in less revenue because of this in '07, or if this price is higher than in other vintages. Whatever the case, this is great wine, showing way above its price point. And in 2007, we have low yields to thank/blame.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Long Should a Wine Age?

I've always been attracted to things that are defined by a concrete set of rules. What attracts me most is when, given a thorough understanding of the rules, it is possible to be creative in solving problems within that system. Chess, baseball, music, poker...these are some of the things I'm talking about.

Wine fits in here too. There are plenty of rules one can use in understanding the universe of wine - places, grape varieties allowed, methods of elevage, and so on. There are people out there, you've probably met them too, whose appreciation of wine seems to derive from an elevated level of scholarship - they treat it like a science. And that's fine. But there is loads of room for creativity too. How long a wine should age, for example - I've been thinking for a while now about this problem, and to me the answers involve creativity, not a set of rules.

I wish there were a set of rules to follow, some sort of list I could use to answer this question. But there just isn't. Imagine:

Vouvray sec - 8 years
Vouvray demi-sec - 14 years
Anything by Huet or Foreau - 23 years
And so on...

Obviously the vagaries of vintage quality, producer quality, terroir quality, vine age, wine making technique, and countless others make it impossible to make such a list.

Yet, you have, if not a list, something in your mind that guides your hand when making decisions about aging wine. How did you form your set of rules? I am still in the process of forming mine. I began by reading and talking to friends, and this definitely served me well. But I'm committed now to experimenting for myself, building my knowledge through trial and error and through the generosity of others. After all, my preferences might not be the same as yours, so just because you say that Fourrier's wines need at least 10 years in a typical vintage, shouldn't I try to find out for myself?

And take a step back for a moment - what does it even mean to say "needs at least 10 years?" Needs 10 years in order to be what, exactly? Ready to drink? Fully mature? Less tannic and in a better state of balance? I read statements like "needs at least 10 years" all the time, and it's not that I think that they're wrong, bad, or silly. But I read them and can accept them as truth, and yet I sometimes have no idea what they're referring to - I've never had a 10 year old Fourrier, for example.

How often do you drink old/mature wine? Unless you often buy at auction, or have been buying and cellaring wine for a very long time, you're probably like me - you drink scores of younger wines for every truly mature bottle you drink.

If I'm buying an age worthy wine, a good red Burgundy, for example, I'm a believer in buying three bottles and drinking one when young in order to know the wine in that phase of its life. That way I will better understand the changes when I next drink it, whenever that is. But when should that be? I remember asking my friend Peter about this as we drove from one cellar tasting to another in Burgundy a little over a year ago. He said "If you're talking about the top wines, good 1er Crus and Grand Crus, things like that, when in doubt, use the 12 year rule. Try a bottle in the 12th year out from the vintage - drink a 2002 in 2014, for example. It's unlikely that a really good wine would be tired or dead at that point, and there's a good chance that the wine will be drinking well."

Hmmm, the 12 year rule. I know I began by saying that the answer involves creativity, not rules. But Peter was suggesting 12 years as a guideline to use when in doubt, and he meant that the drinker should evaluate the wine at that point and determine whether or not it requires further time.

But what about good villages wines, does the 12 year rule apply to them as well? I asked him this recently and he said that the reasoning behind the 12 year rule is the fact that most good Burgundy wine can be quite drinkable in its youth but then a few years out from the vintage it shuts down and becomes quite closed. At 12 years, give or take, it emerges as a mature wine. With villages wine, it might not take 12 years. With great wine in a vintage like 2004, it might not require 12 years. In a high-acid vintage like 1999, it might take more than 12 years for a great wine to mellow and show at its best. So that one bottle of 1999 Lafarge Clos des Chênes I have, I'm going to give it a few years past 2011. In 2009 Peter and I drank a bottle of 1995 Mugneret-Gibourg Echezeaux and it was good, but the wine wasn't fully resolved - the structure was still too prominent, and we both felt that with a few more years it would have shown better. But in 2009 we also drank a bottle of 1995 Chandon de Briailles Corton Clos du Roi and it was a thing of beauty, in a perfect place. Again, even when trying to apply the 12 year rule, the answers require creativity.

Last week in San Diego I had the chance, thanks to the generosity of my father-in-law, to drink a few old wines and I learned a tremendous amount from them. I already told you about the 1986 Margaux, but on another night we drank a 1988 Château Léoville Las Cases and it was superb, I preferred it to the Margaux. It was full of tobacco and leather, the only fruit really was a bit of dark cassis on the finish. There was a tactile texture to the wine and the acidity was still vibrant - the wine was nowhere near tired, it was very much fresh and alive. If I had more of this I would drink it now, it's delicious and what would I be waiting for? So my new rule - good Bordeaux needs exactly 22 years. A joke, friends, a joke. But really, I learned that good old Bordeaux is really good wine, and perhaps it isn't made the same way it was in the '80's and before that, but it's too easy to write off Bordeaux as spoof-city over-priced silliness. My guess is that it once was a great thing.

And how about this - on our last night we drank a 1977 Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale. Pop-pop brought this wine back from Italy a long time ago. I know nothing about Chianti, and my association with Ruffino wasn't great. But I loved this wine, loved it. So leathery and earthy, but with lots of sour cherry too, and all of the aromas and flavors were crystal clear. There was still structure too, and good acidity. And the finish was glorious, this unending wash of cherry and leather fragrance. So, what would happen if I aged a bottle of the 2007 Pian del Ciampolo for 33 years? My guess is it would be awesome. Or maybe it would be tired and brown. Who knows.

I hope I have the patience to cellar wines for decades like this. The rewards can be so great.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spotted in a San Diego Grocery Store

We needed sunblock and diapers, so we drove to CVS, what I think of as a pharmacy, but I now understand is really a grocery store in San Diego. They sell everything, from lawn chairs to perfume to wine.

Something like 35 states allow grocery stores to sell wine, and California is one of them. New York is not one of them, although there is a new proposal that would change that. There have been many such proposals, and all have failed.

I've already shared my opinions on the question of whether or not NY grocery stores should be allowed to sell wine, so I won't rehash it all now. I will tell you, though, that from what I've seen on the shelves in California groceries, well managed wine shops have nothing to worry about. The groceries (and pharmacies, I guess) are selling mass produced wines, wines that are inexpensive and rather common. And for the folks who simply want a bottle of something cheap, isn't it convenient that they can buy it with the rest of their groceries?

The domestic section had a reasonably wide selection of wines, all under $15. The imported wine section consisted of Yellow Tail, and a few other brands. I'm sure that there are Grocery Stores whose wine sections offer more than this one, but even so, I fail to see how something like this could threaten a decent wine store. If this CVS were in NYC, directly across the street from Chambers Street Wines, would Chambers' sales decline?

Chambers Street Wines, and the other retailers in NYC that I count among my favorites, serve a different group of customers from those who would buy wine at this CVS - these are two different markets. Chambers Street is a specialty shop, and they wouldn't be hurt if market regulations are relaxed any more than independently owned bakeries are hurt by bread sales in grocery stores. The bakery that sells Pepperidge Farm and other mass produced bread cannot compete with the grocery store, yes. But a bakery exists to separate itself from the bread masses - they offer a different product to a different customer. There are loads of successful bakeries, some of them chains, others exist as single locations. Some of them are even located near grocery stores that sell bread!

Wine stores that exist to sell half-pints of Georgi, lottery tickets, and jugs of Carlo Rossi will probably go out of business if the legislation passes. But the stores that provide a thoughtfully selected and well priced product will do just fine. Is CVS or Gristedes really going to sell Clos Roche Blanche, Chandon de Briailles, or anybody's Hermitage? I just can't see it. That's wine specialist territory.

A 5 minute drive from the CVS will take you to a little wine store that I've come to like in the few years that I've been coming to San Diego. CVS, Target, Bev Mo, and others are right next door - literally all within a mile of each other. But this place is always bustling. There is always some kind of tasting going on at the back counter, sales people stand in conversation with shoppers, there are high-priced Burgundies and bargain bins alike to poke through, there is a pretty good Champagne selection, and the prices are very good, at least compared to what I'm used to in NYC.

The other night we drank a fantastic bottle of 1996 Fleury Champagne, $55 Terry Theise Selections (I guess Fleury used to be part of the Theise book) that I bought from this store. When in San Diego, if I want to buy wine I'm going to this place. If I need diapers, perfume, a prescription filled, or a lawn chair, I might go to CVS.

Market regulation is a good thing when the normal functioning of a market has unintended or unwanted negative consequences. Like the market for bundled mortgage-backed securities, or the market for coal - those markets, when left to their own devices, produced all sorts of unwanted negative consequences and should be regulated by government. The NY wine laws are the worst kind of market regulation, preventing nothing harmful and existing solely to serve special interests. I hope that one day we can get rid of them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fish Tacos

Visiting San Diego without eating fish tacos would be like visiting New York without getting a slice. So while the kids napped, we drove to Roberto's, a taco shop that came highly recommended.

I imagined a messy shack, guys eating tacos at concrete picnic tables, their surfboards resting next to them. I'm sure there are plenty of places like that, and we ate at one last time we were here, but Roberto's is a bit more upscale than that.

I will admit, I was a worried when we drove up and I saw the sign. "Very Mexican Food..." Was I about to eat at the Olive Garden of taco shacks?

No, not at all, as it turns out. This place was bustling - there was a line at the counter the entire time we were there, and for good reason, the food was inexpensive and very good. We quickly joined the throng of people sitting outdoors happily munching on tacos, burritos, and sipping horchata.

I'm no fish taco expert, but Roberto's is the new reference standard for me. The fish was plump and moist on the inside, and crisply fried without being at all greasy. The corn tortillas were fresh and had a toothsome grainy quality. But the condiments took the whole package to another level, for me. Fresh crunchy cabbage shreds and a sauce that was probably not much more than crema and dill. That's right, dill, in just the right proportion, and it was refreshing and delicious. Next time I would skip the rice and beans in favor of another fish taco. I want another fish taco.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

San Diego Bordeaux

We're in San Diego for a little while visiting BrooklynLady's parents. The weather here is a little bit different from what we've had in NYC.

Eucalyptus tree in the backyard, bright sunny day.

My father in-law, or pop-pop, as my daughter calls him, has a nice collection of wine, mostly California wine and Bordeaux. He reads this blog and so he knows that BrooklynLady and I love wine. On the first evening of this visit, as I came down the hallway into the kitchen, pop-pop said to me "Why don't you go to the wine fridge and pick something really good for us to drink tonight. Nothing is off limits, pick whatever will make you happy." How generous is that?

Even though most of pop-pop's wine is different from the stuff I usually drink, I still felt like a kid in a candy store. Here are some of the things I didn't pick for the evening meal (a delicious turkey meatloaf with roasted potatoes and baby golden beets):
  • 2001 Lafite
  • 2001 Mouton
  • 1988 Château Léoville Las Cases
  • 1994 Cheval Blanc
  • 1997 Montrose
I've never had any of the above wines, no matter what the vintage. It's iconic wines like these that define the top echelon of Bordeaux, and to have the chance to drink any of them is to expand one's knowledge of wine. It was a difficult decision, and in the end I picked this wine:

1986 Château Margaux, Imported by Kobrand. We opened it about a half hour before dinner and didn't decant it. There was no primary fruit at all, as one would expect from a 24 year old wine. The nose showed a restrained delicacy - there was some pencil lead and gravel, but it was less about specific aromas and more about an overall sense of refinement and elegance. The palate was remarkably young and fresh, and still showed plenty of ripe red fruit. It was the texture that I found to be most striking, though. There were layers of fruit and gravelly earth, very intense and focused flavors, and at every point the wine felt silky smooth. Not in an artificially polished way, it just unfolded gently and felt right in the mouth.

What a treat - thanks again pop-pop!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow, Ribs, and Tuscan Wine

You may not know this, but we've had a lot of snow on the east coast. Today, it was New York City's turn.

When we woke up the snow was falling sideways, the winds were so strong. It continued throughout the day, and as I write this it hasn't stopped. I want to eat warm, comforting food in this kind of weather. Something that makes the house smell good.

A good friend recently turned 40 and celebrated by inviting a bunch of her friends to dinner. I ate many tasty things that night, among them some pork spareribs that had been braised in some sort of tomato based sauce and served over creamy polenta. I loved it - so savory, a great mingling of flavors. A few days later while grocery shopping I saw some nice looking pork spareribs and decided to try to cook the dish at home.

At the end of this snowy day, kids in bed (squawking, but in bed), I did my best to make creamy polenta. I think that polenta here is kind of like oatmeal - most of us, myself included, use the quick-cooking version, the less flavorful but easier version. From what I understand, real polenta needs to be cooked with constant stirring for a half hour to achieve the right flavors. Tonight, I didn't do that. Once the water boiled, I let it cook for 5 minutes, whisked in some butter and grated Piave cheese, covered it, and let it sit for another 5 minutes.

How did they make the sauce at the restaurant? I have no idea. I kept it simple - finely chopped onion cooked with the bits left from browning the ribs, some chicken stock, some chopped San Marzano tomatoes, one of last summer's dried red chili peppers, and salt. A long braise in a slow oven, atop the polenta, a little more grated cheese, et voila.

There was not even a moment's doubt about what to drink with this dinner. A few months ago I bought two of bottles of 2007 Montevertine Pian del Ciampolo, $23, Neal Rosenthal Imports, and in my mind's palate, it seemed like a good pairing. Montevertine is a Tuscan producer making what I understand to be traditional Chianti-style wines - I learned about them four years ago on Eric Asimov's blog. I'm a fish out of water with Chianti, but this bottle, Pian del Ciampolo, this one I usually buy.

I drank one of these a while ago and liked it, but it needed a good decant before reveal itself. And even then, this wine is not about fruit. It's about leather and smoke and game and acid. There is some lovely bright red cherry, but I find that to be a secondary consideration.

We opened this wine at about 5:00 and let it sit for almost three hours as we put the kids to bed, made dinner, etc. When we opened it, it was like a freshly tanned hide. Later on it was more balanced, still leathery though, and I thought it was great with dinner - the acids were tamed, the leather too, and I noticed a lot more dark smokey fruit in the wine. BrooklynLady thought it was "kind of average." I hear that - there is nothing overtly beautiful about this wine, and it is quite the high acid wine. It's ugly-hot, if you know what I mean.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Comment Moderation

Folks, I'm sorry to have to do it, and annoyed also, but I'm tired of deleting unwanted comments advertising flower shops in Pakistan, Japanese escort services, and various other detritus. So I'm going to experiment with comment moderation.

I know it's annoying to have to wait to see your comment go up on the site, but at least this way I, not you, will be the person who has to see all the unwanted comments. If it doesn't work out, I'll go back to open comments. Let's see how it goes.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Mini-slew of Northern Rhône Wines

I haven't had a whole lot of northern Rhône wine. I've had some nice things at tastings, but at home with meals my experiences are mostly limited to the wines of Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. Then, about a week and a half ago there was a stretch of a few days in which I had three top-notch wines from the northern Rhône. It was an interesting trio - I feel like I really learned something from these particular wines.

First, it was 1998 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle, at least $100 if you buy it now, imported by Frederick Wildman. Why this wine? I dropped by Deetrane's house one night and he made a very delicious western Chinese style beef noodle soup (pickled greens, pickled chilis, sesame oil, and so on). He disappeared into the cellar and returned bearing this treasure.

A few nights later my friend Adam came by, Deetrane too, as I had braised a pork shoulder with fennel and blood orange. I decided to open a bottle that I recently acquired, the 2000 Noël Verset Cornas, $60, Imported by Connoisseur Wines (usually imported by Kermit Lynch, but I bought this at Crush, who obtained it from a private collection). Noël Verset is thought by many to make the finest wines in Cornas, but he is over 90 years old now and he finally retired, and there is no one who will take over for him. So there will be no more Verset Cornas. Every time some one uncorks a bottle, that's one less bottle of Verset that will ever exist.

And then the very next evening, BrooklynLady and I had dinner with our friends Clarke and Sophie and one of the things they served was a hearty cassoulet-type stew with a 2000 Auguste Clape Cornas, about $50 but the wines cost more now, Imported by either Michael Skurnik or Kermit Lynch, perhaps by both?

Can you believe that, the weird way that things can string together sometimes?

The Jaboulet Hermitage was striking in its elegance. Deetrane decanted it and it looked as though a lot of the solid matter had fallen from the skeleton of the wine, leaving only garnet tinted water (and in fact there was a load of sediment at the bottom). Yet the wine was quite intense, with very ripe dark fruit and lovely floral and warm spicy aromatics. The horses, the skinned rabbits, the tar, the other things I think of when I think of northern Rhône Syrah - not there. This wine was all about elegance, nothing rustic whatsoever.

The 2000 Verset, however, now that wine had a rustic side. We didn't decant it, and at first the nose was all roasted soil and horse stable. The wine tasted great though, very ripe, but also layered and complex, and after about a half hour the nose blossomed, showing fruit and flowers, blood and meat, anchored by that same roasted barnyard sense. What impressed me most about this big and brawny wine though, aside from its sheer deliciousness, was that it showed great detail in its flavors - it sacrificed nothing in nuance. And in a hot year that made very ripe wines, Verset's Cornas is merely 12.5% alcohol.

The 2000 Clape is not a wine that I would call brawny, and it wasn't a rustic either. To me, it was more like the Hermitage than it was like the Verset. It built slowly over the course of an hour, showing deliciously ripe fruit, peppery and intense. We came back to it an hour after that and it had really blossomed, with expansive flavors of orange, leather, and earth. A big wine, but also a wine of clarity and poise. Clape also kept the alcohol low - a very respectable 13%.

How much can you really know from drinking three wines - very little. But I feel like I have a better understanding of the elegance of Hermitage relative to the rusticity of Cornas. And a sense of the disparate styles of Verset and Clape, both great producers, but whose wines have very different personalities, at least in the 2000 vintage.

By the way, you'll notice in the two photos that what I'm guessing is a lot number appears in the lower left of the label. It reads "L1" on the Verset, and "L4" on the Clape. Anyone know what that means, exactly?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Steamed Crabs on the Brooklyn Paper

My usual fish people are not at the farmer's market these days, they go to Florida from January through March. There was a new fish guy on a recent Saturday morning and along with the workaday flounder and cod fillets, he was selling blue crab.

It was freezing outside that morning and the crabs were quite still in their basket. "Oh, they're alive alright," the fisherman said. "They're just cold." And he stuck his gloved hand into the bucket and picked up a crab. It immediately began snapping its claws at him.

But I've never cooked a crab in my life, I thought, and I certainly have no idea how to eat them. The fisherman showed me how to clean them on the spot, removing a kind of "tail" that is folded flat on the underside, and then pulling off the top shell. He showed me where the good meat is, and the orange coral, or roe. He said that crabs hibernate this time of year, and they are meatier and sweeter than they are in the warm weather. Sounds reasonable.

At this point I essentially had to buy a few crabs. He had sacrificed one to show me the cleaning process, after all. I bought a half dozen and we brought them to my friend Deetrane's house that evening where he steamed them with Old Bay seasoning and we went to town. They're not that difficult to eat, actually, although my fingers did acquire many tiny scrapes and puncture wounds, each of which was partially caurterized by the Old Bay.

So this past weekend, although no one would eat them with me (BrooklynLady is not a fan), I decided to try this at home. First, let me tell you, do not to look too closely at the crabs' faces when you're preparing them. They really do look like giant bugs from outer space.

I kept things simple and followed the Old Bay recipe, what I would call Baltimore-style, although please feel free to castigate me if I have slandered a regional classic. It says on the back of the can to mix equal parts water and vinegar, and to use a half cup of Old Bay to season the crabs before steaming them for about a half hour. I wonder why it's important to include vinegar in the steaming liquid?

A half cup looked like an awful lot of Old Bay. So I used a bit less than a quarter cup. I should have followed the recipe and used more, as a good deal of the seasoning ended up in the steaming liquid after cooking, not enough on the crabs. They were delicious anyway, but the Old Bay bites were the best bites.

I wanted to create a little bit of a Baltimore crab shack atmosphere in my dining room, so I spread out some newspaper and dumped the crabs right onto the table. Here, I must mention that the choice of newspaper is of great importance. Using the Daily News or the Post would surely have imbued the crabs with poor flavor. I could have used the Wall Street Journal, but I wanted the crabs to have joyous flavors, not bitter and frightened ones. The NY Times would probably have worked well, but I wanted my newspaper to lend the crabs an earthy local tone, nothing fancy, but nothing too shabby either.

I must say, it was almost a shame to eat the crabs - they looked so great splayed out on the Brooklyn Paper, all red from their steam bath, bit ruddy from the old bay. Anyone who eats crabs will tell you that things get messy very quickly.

And what to drink with this little feast? Deetrane and I drank Riesling at his house, and that was very good. There are several wines I was thinking about, and I almost opened a bottle of 1998 López de Heredia Rose. But in the end it just seemed like a meal that wanted cold beer. I poured a nice glass of Sly Fox Chester County Bitter, a cask beer from Pennsylvania whose light carbonation comes only from the fermentation in cask.

The whole thing was delicious, a special treat. And this time my fingers suffered only a few minor lacerations.