the (optimal) wine experience

I often write about wines specifically, sometimes peppering in posts about a particular restaurant that’s caught my attention. Individually these are just a couple of ‘tools’ you can put in your belt on the quest for a fuller wine experience. Because wine, in fact, is all about the experience – who you are with, how your drink of choice pairs with a snack or meal of choice, ambience, service, etc. Any given wine experience may have any one or more of these various components. It is the intersection of parts that creates the bigger picture, hopefully of just plain old fun or (better yet) memorable elation. In my experience, these Moments are not something you can plan.

This week I had the great pleasure of joining a local wine colleague at dinner with Marchesi di Barolo’s Anna Abbona. Our destination? Somerville’s tucked away ‘hot spot’ Journeyman. I had yet to embark for Journeyman – not for lack of trying (note: they are closed on Tuesdays).  The praise has remained outstanding among my colleagues and so I was all the happier to have the ‘excuse’ to visit. To say it didn’t disappoint is not quite accurate. To say it Exceeded Expectations is closer to the truth: artisanal; attention to detail; hospitality; fresh; inspired; inventive. These are just a few words that Chef/Owners Diana and Tse Wei are beginning to redefine; the bar has been reset – so high in fact, I wonder if someone can top them. “Camberville”  is where it’s at.

Journeyman set the stage for an exceptional experience, doing their part (beyond the exceptional fare) by making very clever “beverage” pairings (with Sutton Cellar’s aperitif and Cisco Brewing Company’s Grey Lady mixed in to the fun of their wine pairing roster). However, meeting the captivating, bright (and also beautiful) Anna was truly a treat. This is a woman who is a crucial part of an elite, fifth generation wine making family in one of the world’s most important wine regions: Piedmont. I could wax poetic about her stunning wines (the 2007 Ruvei Barbera d’Alba and 2004 Cannubi Barolo made their presence known during dinner) as their sultry femininity, depth of character, expression of terroir and structure were enough to stop all conversation in its tracks. But I have to say it was her salt-of-the earth nature, openness about her experiences traveling, her insights about emerging wine markets and the focus Marchesi di Barolo will continue to maintain -  amidst ample laughter, her mutual banter and appreciation for the larger Journeyman experience and general frivolity that marked the evening tops in my books.

Indeed, I will happily return to Journeyman, though yes, this particular outing will remain on my Top 10 Boston Evenings for much time to come and it is likely it will never be unseated.

Among the grey-ist of Springs, it is now summer in my book! Thank you Anna. Thank you Diane and Tse Wei. Thank you Kathryn.

Aperitifs: The oh-so Lovely Lillet

‘Tis the season to be merry! And sometimes merriment is best facilitated by getting your guests in the mood for – in the immortal words of Seinfeld writers – Festivus! Last weekend I had the pleasure of pouring a few holiday libations for just such a purpose at a public tasting event. (I had what happens to be my favorite Champagne Rose on hand, Lillet and two different Ports on offer; oh yes, I was captain of the Fun Team!)

Much to my amusement, the Lillet was the fan favorite. In part this was because it’s an aperitif that’s been around since dirt bringing back memories for many, and in part it’s because it’s just so interesting. Leave it to a monk, Father Kermann, to “invent” it back in the late 1800′s in Pondesac, Bordeaux. Fermann was also a doctor/mixologist, creating elixirs and fortifiers using ingredients like quinine. Enter the burgeoning region of Bordeaux where crazy ingredients like star anise, brandy, cane sugar, et. al. were then descending from all over the world (China, Gascony, West Indies….) and our friend Fr. Kermann is one happy camper! From this epicenter of creativity and fine ingredients came Lillet.

But let’s back up for a second… An aperitif is an alcoholic beverage meant to begin a meal. Literally, it gets consumers in the mood for food by stimulating the appetite. For me it’s also one of those ‘balms’ I’ve mentioned of late that has a welcome touch of alcohol to take the edge off potentially uncomfortable social situations, or to otherwise just get people in the spirit of the occasion (pun intended). It also isn’t so strong in taste it will kill the next libation’s flavors (e.g. wine with the meal).

On the Lillet bottle it reads: “Since 1872″. Apparently there is no official recipe they use to make it year after year, instead relying on each cuvee to dictate the outcome. And apparently in 1985 they revamped their overall approach to appeal to modern-day consumers. Once much more bitter and slightly more sweet in flavor, today the aperitif offers a tremendously floral bouquet with hints of apricots and honey – it reminds me (and others) of late harvest wines. From there it delivers a surprising minerality, and notes of slightly bitter orange peel and apricots. (Technically speaking, it is made from the white wine Bordeaux grapes Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (85%) and “fruit liquors” (15%). It is aged for 10 months (on average) in oak barrels.) I encouraged every person who approached my table to simply try it for themselves – and while each had their own reaction, nearly all was pleasantly surprised by it and certainly excited to add it to their holiday party shopping cart.

Which apertif do you enjoy during the holidays? Have you tried Lillet – whether on ice, with a twist, a’la James Bond or otherwise?

Wines for Fall: The sweeter finds (and Wine Blogging Wednesday)!

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a rare treat in the larger wine world, particularly here in North America: Pineau des Charentes. When I saw that Joe the #1 Wine Dude had expanded this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday theme (maderized dessert wines) to include fortified wines, well, it was all I could do to hold off all reports on this fabulous little dessert/aperitif-perfect-for-apple-pie-or-in-front-of-the-fire-or-before-a-chic-meal find!

Pineau des Charetes is made from 2/3 unfermented must of fresh grapes and (drum roll please!) 1/3 COGNAC. This is my paradise.

Old wives tales (or perhaps actual history) has it this fun beverage was created by mistake. How so? Well, apparently a grower back in the 16th Century poured grape must (the juice, skins, stems…) into a barrel that already contained Cognac (brandy). The barrel was out of sight/mind for another 5 years or so until a huge harvest came in and additional barrels were needed. Soon enough, the concoction was discovered. The stuff tasted so darn good – fruity, sweet, yet lighter and not cloying in texture – the folks in Charentes, France perfected the process and began peddling it to eager consumers.

This aperitif thrills me for a number of reasons. First, it is a rare find here in the United States. Somehow, the masses have failed to catch on to the glory that is this sweet, little libation. Second, most producers have not chosen to make Pineau, considering it a mere byproduct of Cognac; they simply use Ugni Blanc grapes, which is also used in the production of Cognac. Among those who do make Pineau part of their repertoire, the best wines are made from the freshest (read: from field to barrel in a single day), hand-picked grapes. Only by hand-picking can they know the moment when full maturity is acheived, when the golden grapes turn to a deep topaz color and, for the red wines, when the black grapes turn from crimson to brown.

Pineau des Charentes is often found at 18% alcohol – the optimal level. It must remain in bottle for at least one year before it is sold (and often the best producers wait as much as five years before releasing it). As I alluded above, Pineau is offered in Or (white) or Ruby (red) varieties. In the case of the Ruby, Cabernet, Cab Franc or Merlot varietals are used.

If you’ve never enjoyed Pineau before or after a meal, please do. You are missing out! For those who don’t prefer overly sweet dessert wines, this should be a good fit. Pineau certainly can accompany a little pastry, tart, or ice cream dessert. But it is also delightful with foie gras, oysters, poached fish, goat cheese, Roquefort and even fine game. (Use your gut instinct on which – red or white – variety pairs best with each of these suggestions.) Just avoid consuming Pineau with any ‘strong’ flavored sauces or dishes, even as simple as olives. It’ll taste a little funkity funk….

For Wine Blogging Wednesday I served the Domaine du Perat Or with apple pie two weeks ago. The fruits in the Perat were reminiscent of stewed peaches and ripe apricots. But it also offered a depth of flavors you’ll find reminiscent of cognac (burnt caramel nuttiness) – without the burn.  Serve chilled, for optimal flavors.

I’m curious how well received Pineau still is in France these days… do you know? If you’re from North America, is this post a throw back to days of old for you? Or is Pineau de Charentes a new one on you?