Tasting and traveling – and the two in tandem

Wondered where I’ve been? March was largely spent downtown or throughout Cambridge at various venues set up for trade folks to taste hundreds of wines, both those entirely new to market and also and equally important, newly released vintages of old friends. It was a more rigorous spring tasting season on “the circuit” (as we wine professionals call it) than last year, I hate to admit it.

Meanwhile, I was preparing for my trip (now in motion…) to Spain, where I have been visiting what I call Cava Country, more formally known as Penedes, and also the Priorat.

My travels began a couple of days ago with Marc Picon at Pares Balta, which  proved more than I could have imagined, even knowing in advance that this is a fourth-generation run estate that has embraced organic viticulture since The Beginning, well before it was of interest or marketable to do so. They also operate in what is now a national Park.

When I arrived, Marc, my congenial on-sight host and the estate’s Export Manager, explained that Pares Balta’s main priority isn’t showcasing the “music” behind their work in the winery when they are introducing people to Pares Balta (and yes, they make many, many different wines); rather they are focused on the land. I smiled and nodded a bit when he said this, because if you’ve taken a trip to any winery worldwide, I’m sure you, too, have heard the owner, winemaker or staff talk about the importance of terroir. Not to undermine their work or the sincerity of these statements, but I have to say, Pares Balta really does relish the earth and the natural course of things in an extreme way (and the result is extremely tasty!).

To explain better, Marc and I jumped in his SUV and began our “15 minute” journey up into the mountains where the Pares Balta vineyards are located, as I mentioned, now in a National Park. Yes, it is that serious. And yes, the ride was even more colorful than one of those Super Bowl SUV ads where you see trucks bouncing along easily over fallen logs, up cliffs and over boulders. If I could have taken a picture of it, I would have – but we were literally bouncing too much for me to capture the moment and video would have made any viewer nauseous.

Our first “stop” up the vigorous terrain was to the Pares Balta beehives. A costly undertaking, no doubt, PB has a beekeeper on staff to further support cross-pollination of the vines of course, but not just so they flourish; rather, so that the entire community flourishes, imparting natural, enhanced flavors in the wine. For example, the rosemary bushes growing alongside the trail flower. This flavor profile is gently communicated to the vines as the bees carry out their natural work. Brilliant. Nature helping nature help us.

Marc employed a terrific approach to best share both the Pares Balta way and what makes Penendes unique. We didn’t just bound up the mountain and look out the window. Instead, we stopped at various, specific vineyard sites to taste certain wines alongside the river in one case, and at the top of the mountain, in another. At each stop you could literally feel the change in climate, the quality of “freshness” in the air, the amount of (or lack of) wind, etc.. What makes Penendes so special was poignant and palpable: the varied terrain (a vivid mix of plots of clay literally across the path from plots of chalk) and microclimates.

What was perhaps most compelling to me was the hands off/hands on approach PB employs. They fully embrace what nature delivers on its own, and yet they don’t hesitate to employ (or encourage nature along?) either. Case in point, they use pheromones at the edge of the vineyards site as a natural ‘turn off’ to butterflies (the wind carries the “off-putting” scent down the rows), encouraging them to go ‘play’ in someone else’s vineyards. It’s one way to avoid pesticides and let the fruit mature unhindered by pests.

Tasting through many of Pares Balta’s wines was its own experience. Their range is from traditional Cavas, to rare single varietal bottlings that capture both the essence of the grape and also, critically and as expected, of the vineyard site’s terroir and aspect. As a case in point, Marc enthusiastically offered me a tasting of one of their rarest wines, a dry Gewurtztraminer. It was possibly the most varietally expressive Gewurtz I have ever experienced. (Yes! This grape is incredibly rare to Spain and more often found in Europe’s Germany and Alsace; the spice in the wine literally poked at my taste buds! But no, their production is ever-so-small, and therefore will never reach our New England shores.)

In addition, Marc enthusiastically designed a taste-off between two pairs of wines. The first was of two Garnacha’s from two different vineyard sites. Their flavors were of like family, but certainly of distinct breeding: 2008 Hisenda Miret, a more rugged, gamey beast that tamed willingy as it opened; and the 2008 Indigena, a fruit forward, approachable Garnacha with the flare of a rosey-cheeked flamenco dancer.

The second taste-off was between two Tempranillos hailing from two different clones, one wine was made from the local Penendes grape Ull de Lebre, and the other from a Pares Balta project in a much farther region, Ribera del Duero. The Absis is a Tempranillo-based wine that delivered a surprising helping of stewed plumbs, golden raisin, orange rind, blackberry and brighter raspberry fruits, with intense herbs and purple flowers, while the Ribera wine showed more masculine muscle, wet soil, fine dried herbs and baker’s chocolate flavors.

Long story short, I could have stayed all day! But appointments in the equally world-reknowned Priorat region beckoned….

What to do with left over bubbly? drink it!

Did you end up with a few extra bottles of sparkling wine after New Year’s this year? It seems to be the normal course of things – and many people hesitate to do the obvious thing with these wines, what with official “celebrations” behind us. But corks are meant to come out! Here’s how I’ve gone about tackling this delicious, festive, “problem”:

This New Year the Prosecco of choice for my friends and I was Santome. This is one I’m sure I’ve blogged about in the past, because it delivers lifted, just tart green apple fruit and lemon zest flavors; it’s more crisp, dry nature makes it a good one to make cocktails with if that’s your bag, but it is also delicious all on its own. For $12.99 you have no guilt opening bottle after bottle – and if you stick with it all night, you’re likely in a hangover free zone. But on December 31st we didn’t quite make it through the full case, so I anted up for game night last weekend. Santome was the perfect accompaniment to the deviled egg appetizers I whipped up.

Next, I pulled out the bigger guns in my repertoire…

In my bubbly archives, I discovered I somehow still had one bottle of the 1999 Pierre Morlet Brut. With good friends who enjoy good wine, why not pop a cork? They are meant to come out after all, so what more of an occasion do you need? And this wine had already been in bottle for more than a decade. So as the pork tenderloin rested and the cinnamon scented butternut squash mashed potatoes cooled a little, we popped the cork on this bad boy, too. It had a lovely mousse, with just the right amount of toastiness, red and yellow apple fruits, and a lithe lemon cream texture. A wild accent of hazelnuts mid-palate made this wine a favorite among the group.

After savoring Pierre, we finished our bubbly spree with the very dry, mineral-laced Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Brut. Another winner, we enjoyed the texture of this wine also, with fine bubbles bringing pear and red apple fruit flavors quickly to bear. This wine was particularly memorable for the previously mentioned minerality – a clean, wet pebble/chalky essence. Delicious vin!

Remember, you don’t need an official celebration or Real Occasion to enjoy sparkling wine. It is the most food friendly option available, pairing with every possible food, and delicious all on it’s own. As you begin to dig your heals into 2011, I beg you to take sparkling wine with you on your travels more frequently! Why not make an easy night in with friends that much more enjoyable?

How often do you drink sparkling wine?

TW Food does it again – wine dinner featuring the Jura region

Image c/o TW Food website

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a restaurant review. I do have a list of places on my ‘to talk about’ list, though; some of these spots are more remote or ‘hole in the wall’ than others and I selfishly find I like to keep these hidden gems to myself before I dig deep to overcome my personal/professional block and write about them. The good news for you, dear reader, is that when I do finally ‘break down’ and share my impressions of certain fine establishments around town, you know my writings are heartfelt.

Time and again my experiences at the somewhat off-the-beaten path TW Food restaurant in Cambridge are exceptional ones – so much so that it was the “Something New” gift card I imparted on two of my best friends earlier this fall as part 2 of  their wedding present (part 1 being “Something Old” – a gift card to the spot where they had their first official date). The recent special tasting of Jura wines with food pairings by the ever-meticulous head Chef/Owner Tim Wiechmann that I attended was no exception. A small, talented team (maybe just Tim, his attentive wife Bronwyn and their knowledgeable Sommelier Jillian Marini?) in a small, cozy/romantic space seems to be all you need to create an unusually thoughtful, unobtrusive experience for guests. An artisanal approach doesn’t hurt either…

Jillian’s personal wine curiosity means that TW doesn’t just deliver an amazing gastronomic experience, but that you are in for a treat when you also opt for the wine pairing as part of their prefix menu. I don’t think there is a more reasonably priced meal around town – let alone one that will allow you, already an ‘explorer’ by virtue of the fact that you sought out TW Food in it’s Cambridge nook, to further discover several distinct parts of the wine world and delicious flavor combinations at one sitting.

TW is also committed to the local/seasonal movement. This means that their wine list, though small, packs a real punch and is always fine-tuned to work with the fare of the season. Right now they are rock’n a largely Jura wine selection. The Jura is a tiny, lesser explored wine region bordering Burgundy and Switzerland. Wines from these regions share a certain similarity with one another – but as I always find is the case in these parts, they have their own chutzpah and personality, too. In the Jura their focus is on lesser known varietals like Poulsard and Trousseau (reds), and Savagnin and Chardonnay (whites). It can get beastly cold there, so yes, it is right to guess the reds tend to have a levity or lighter-bodied quality to them. Minerality (terroir) cuts through and distinguishes the wines in a such a distinct way that I can only analogize to say, it reminds me of a chilly winter day when it smells like snow is coming -  you just know it to be what it is.

During dinner we enjoyed Peggy Buronfosse’s Cremant Rose of Pinot Noir Brut (a lively, delicious, finely bubbled sparkler with raspberry and blueberry intonations) as well as her 2006 Savagnin/Chardonnay blend called “Les Belemnites, which reminded me of an aged Chablis for its richness, truffle tones and caramel nuttiness you can get from an aged wine. Stephane Tissot’s old vine Poulsard (2007) reminded me of a Gamay/Pinot Noir blend – and was a fine match for the seared tuna at hand. Dessert need not have come for the tremendous Vin Jaune by Jacques Puffeney (1999) was treat enough for me; Vin Jaune is considered a specialty of the Jura and one not to miss when the occasion presents itself.

At last check, each of these wines is available right now at TW Food. They are certainly ones I consider “nerd wines” – perfect for the wine curious explorer. And ’tis the season for giving and indulging! Head over to TW Food and you won’t be disappointed.

Have you had the pleasure of dining at TW Food? What is it that keeps you going back?