Archive for February, 2009

Last night Miki-san and I attended the Semester 2 kick off of In Vino Veritas.  Phil and Guillaume Desport, a young winemaker from Bordeaux, coordinated the tasting.  The theme was an introductory course on wine tasting, formatted as a blind tasting of two whites and two reds, all representative of their particular region.  Most of the bottles were good, standard and affordable wines, with the exception of the Bouchard Père & Fils, which is a very reputable domaine out of Bourgogne with a long history of quality and numerous grand crus and premier crus bottlings.

Another great tasting but just one grievance (sorry Phil), which drives me crazy everytime I run into it… OVERLY-CHILLED WINE!  In this case the two whites were way too cold.  Many within the wine industry are jumping onto the bandwagon of drinking all wine (white and red alike) at room temperature, around 65 degrees Farhenheit or 18 degrees Celcius.  I’m a big advocate of this, although I can certainly understand slightly chilled whites and of course even more chilled dessert wines and sparkling wines.  Some sommeliers will even preach to you for hours about the precise temperature at which each particular wine should be drunk.  But for a professional tasting, especially a blind tasting, and when selecting wines for purchase, the wine should NEVER be chilled.  It’s simply not possible to fully evaluate a wine below room temperature.  The acidity is exaggerated, as are any tannins.  Moreover the flavors and aromas will be closed and not able to fully express themselves.  It’s simple chemistry.  It’s like comparing a tango to a slow waltz.  Both can be beautiful dances but which one is more lively and expressive?  The same is true with the dance that goes on between the molecules that interact within the glass.  Thus, the colder the wine, the slower and less 2007 Domaine de la Moussièreexpressive the dance.  Again this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Everyone has their own taste and I always preach for people to drink what they like, not what experts tell them is good.  But for the purpose of evaluation, please always stick to room temperature.

2007 “La Moussière” Domaine de la Moussière (Alphonse Mellot)
Varietal: Sauvignon Blanc
Appellation: Sancerre, Loire Valley
Price: 12€
Tasting Notes: Straw yellow in the glass.  A green nose with aromas of green apple, grass, and flowers.  A dry, medium-bodied, very acidic, and vibrant palate.  There are flavors of still ripening mandarin orange, a background of dried apricot and a citric finish, all accompanied by a smooth, light texture.
Rating: 12/20 (WS 88)

2007 Reserve Willm

Blind Notes: I narrowed it down to Loire or Bordeaux and knew it was a sauvignon blanc.

2007 “Reserve” Willm
Varietal: Gewurztraminer
Appellation: Alsace
Price: 8€
Tasting Notes: Lightly burnt straw yellow in the glass.  A very floral nose with aromas of honey, peach, tropical fruits and in particular lychee.  This wine is very fruity, dry to off-dry and full-bodied with a syrupy texture.  There are flavors of white peach and lychee.
Rating: 14/20 (WS 88)
Blind Notes: I nailed this one dead on.

2001 “Haut de Poujeaux” Chateau Poujeaux (Philippe Cuvelier)
Blend: 55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon
Appellation: Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux
Price: 11€
Tasting Notes: Mahagony, reddish-brown, clouded by light sediment in the glass.  An alcoholic nose with aromas of black fruit, blackberry, vanilla, light hints of barnyard, and a 2001 Chateau Poujeauxlittle spice and leather.  A dry, very acidic, slightly unbalanced wine with bitter tannins and a medium body.  In the mouth there are flavors of dark chocolate, mushrooms and black fruit.
Rating: 14/20
Blind Notes: I narrowed it down to Bordeaux or Rhone and pinpointed the cabernet sauvignon, but wasn’t sure if the second grape was merlot or grenache.

2005 Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils2005 “Beaune du Chateau” Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils
Varietal: Pinot Noir
Appellation: Beaune Premier Cru, Cotes d’Or, Bourgogne
Price: 12€
Tasting Notes: Light ruby red and clear in the glass.  Alcoholic aromas of spice, mild pepper, raspberry, flowers and pronounced cherries.  A dry, balanced, tannic wine with a smooth and silky texture.  The palate in dominated by strawberry and black cherries.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 89)
Blind Notes: I nailed it.


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Air FranceI thought it’d be interesting to evaluate an “airplane wine”, since I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately.  In fact I’ll be flying again this weekend – on Lufthansa to Munich – to visit my best friend Paco, who’s in from Monterrey, Mexico.  Contrary to what logic or snobbery may suggest, every once and a while I’ll run into some decent wines at 30,000 feet.  The wine being covered in this post was provided by Air France, who I’ve consistently found to be above average when it comes to wine and food on flights.  I flew Air France on my recent 10-day trip to China.

La Vieille Ferme Cotes du LuberonLa Vieille Ferme, located in the Southern Rhone Valley, produces reds, whites and rosés.  Their vines grow at 1,000 feet above sea-level in a soil composition of old alluviums, flat and rounded stones, chalk marl and clay.  The grapes are harvested relatively late.

So without further ado, especially since my jet lag is still lingering, let me present the goods…

2007 La Vieille Ferme
Appellation: Côtes du Luberon, Rhone Valley
Blend: grenache blanc, bourboulenc, ugni blanc, roussanne
Price: $9 SRP
Tasting Notes: Straw yellow in the glass.  Aromas of apple, lemon, orange, and flowers.  Fleshy apple and orange peel flavors, not too complex.  In the mouth dry and medium-bodied with a creamy, silky texture and balanced acidity. 13% vol.  41,665 cases produced.
Rating: 13/20 (WS 86)

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Great Wall of ChinaI just returned from a 22-day whirlwind tour of South Korea, Japan, and China, hence the 2-week neglect of the Crew.  Plus as an additional hindrance, in typical Communist Party fashion, WordPress.com was actually blocked from Chinese servers.  However, other than that let down, these past few weeks have been simply amazing.  The Chinese people were extremely friendly and the filtered, censored, unitary, yet at the same time diverse and colorful culture was absolutely fascinating.

Since my last day was spent in Beijing, visiting the Great Wall of China, I thought a tasting of Great Wall Wine would match up perfectly.  But first let me breakdown the current wine situation in the People’s Republic of China.  Chinese wine began to take shape in the 1980s when French and Western wine caught on and many French-taught Chinese winemakers emerged.  China is currently the 6th largest grape-wine producer in the world with over 500 producers currently registered.  It is only a matter of time before China takes the number on spot.  83% of the wine is sold domestically and many producers have implemented marketing tactics similar to Napa Valley in order to attract and accommodate visitors.  As of 2007, 90% of the wine consumed was red and females tend to be the more avid drinkers.  The most productive wine regions/provinces include Xinjiang, Tianjin, Shandong, Jinlin, Hebei, Henan, and Yunnan.  Many regions suffer from extreme climates, requiring such methods as burying vines to protect against the cold.

Dynasty, Great Wall and Changyu are the leading producers, and a number of premium producers are also emerging, such as Huadong (Shandong), Shanxi Grace (Shanxi), Lou Lan (Xinjiang), Turpan (Xinjiang), Suntime Manas (Xinjiang), and Bodegas Langes (Hebei).

Great Wall Cabernet - Not The Bottle TastedGreat Wall Wine Company Ltd. is located at the foot of the Great Wall next to the Guanting Lake.  COFCO Wine & Spirits, which owns the Great Wall brand, is one of the top 500 enterprises in the world.  Great Wall Co. currently produces 7 different types of wine (dry, semi-sweet, sweet, fragrance-infused, sparkling, distilled, and compounding) and 40 different labels.  The Great Wall Dry White Wine and Great Wall Semi-Sweet White Wine have become famous in the domestic market, winning 14 Gold and Silver medals from Chinese and international wine authorities.

1990 Great Wall 4-Star, COFCO Wine and Spirits
Appellation: Guanting Lake, China (Office location only. I lost the label and the WWW proved worthless when trying to confirm the AOC of this bottle)
Blend: cabernet sauvignon, merlot
Price: $32
Source: Olé Supermarket Beijing
Tasting Notes: Maroon in the glass. Aromas of tea, light oxidation, mushrooms, vegetables, wet moss, grass, black cherries, and strawberries. A medium-bodied dry wine with unbalanced low acidity and mild tannins and flavors of mushrooms and unripe red fruits.  This wine was past its prime and suffered from a little TCA.
Rating: 9/20

Closing Note: I do not recommend this particular bottle; it was far too old.  However, I did taste a much younger bottle of Great Wall Dry Cabernet for around $6, and although it had no complexity, it had a vibrant acidity and fresh fruits in the mouth, which made it much more drinkable.  I’d give it a 10-11 rating.  Chinese wine experts are convinced that within 50 years Chinese wine will rival any top shelf French wine; so it will be interesting to watch as Chinese wine progresses.

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Hakkaisan Mountain

I couldn’t imagine a better welcome to Japan!  John and I arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday the 4th.  We met up with Miki San and took a bullet train 2 hours to Minami Uonuma, a town within the Niigata Prefecture.  Niigata is the top rice growing and thus sake brewing region of Japan.  The backdrop was stunning – a quaint little town, rice fields and 360 degrees of mountains, all covered by many feet of brilliantly white snow.  We stayed at 龍言 Ryugon Ryokan “Dragon Hotel”, which is considered to be one of the top hot springs resorts in all of Japan.  It felt like we stepped into a time warp back to the 17th century.  Thanks to the hot spring water running down from Hakkaisan Mountain, the experience was that of total relaxation and pure serenity.

On day two, after hittin’ up the hot springs one last time, we headed to 八海醸造 Hakkai Jyozo sake brewery, which is the top sake producer in Japan and considered to be one of the best.  The brewery is relatively new, founded onlHakkai Jyozo Sake Breweryy 86 years ago, compared to 300-400 years for the average brewer in Japan.  We met the CEO Nagumo Jiro and spent a half day with Shigemitsu Nagumo, the head 蔵人 kurabito, equivalent to an enologist in wine making.  Mr. Nagumo gave us a tour of the brewery and invited us to a soba lunch, where we tasted 4 of Hakkai Jyozo’s labels.

For those of you that aren’t aware of the beauty behind sake, here’s a quick 101…

Unlike wine, which converts natural sugars to alcohol (although the process can be aided by chaptalization), sake is more similar to beer, which converts starch to sugar and then sugar to alcohol.  The difference with sake is that this two step brewing process occurs simultaneously through a process known as “parallel” fermentation.

General steps to making sake:
1. Polish the individual rice grains to remove proteins and oils and to concentrate the starch content
2. Let the rice “rest” to absorb moisture and avoid cracking
3. Soak the rice in water for several hours to remove the rice powder
4. Boil or steam the rice and then allow the outside shell to harden
5. Select an amount of rice to be inoculated with こうじ菌 “koji” bacteria for 2 days
6. Make the 酛 “moto” starter mash, which is a mix of koji, water, yeast and in less traditional methods, lactic acid
7. Add the mash to steamed rice and cultivate for 10-15 days
8. During 3 days, mix in additional steamed rice, water, and koji, completing the もろみ “moromi” main mash
9. Ferment for up to 4 months at 50 degrees F for high-grade sake, or for less time and at a higher temperature for lower-grade sake
10. Add 醸造アルコール brewer’s alcohol, for certain designations of sake
11. Send through carbon filtration and pasteurize, the more filtered the better, between 30% to 60% filtration
12. Add water to dilute the alcohol volume from around 20% to around 15%.
13. Bottle the sake.  The final composition is about 3% rice & rice koji, 15% alcohol, and 82% mountain water.

making sakeSake takes but a few months to brew and is meant to drink within a year.  However, important quality desginations exist.  普通酒 Futsu is “ordinary sake”, equivalent to table wine.  This designation is not bound by strict sake making methods and can have a very high amount of brewer’s alcohol added.  Following this basic designation, four special designation premium sakes, known as 特定名称酒 tokutei meisho, exist.  Honjozo, designates a sake with only a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added to reach the ideal volume.  Junmai sake has no brewer’s alcohol added.  Ginjo sake designates sake made from rice polished to 60% its orginal composition.  This level rice polishing is known as “seimaibuai”.  Daiginjo sake is a step above ginjo, being brewed from rice with a seimaibuai of 50% or less.  Daiginjo Junmai is considered to be the highest quality sake in its most pure form, with some expensive bottlings brewed from rice polished down to 30% and no brewer’s alcohol added.

Please note that I am not a sake expert and this briefing only scratches the surface.  Many other sub-designations and varieties and handling distinctions exist.  As with wine, sake brewing is an art, bringing together man, woman and 八海山 本醸造 Hakkaisan Honjozonature, dating back over 2,000 years.

Full disclosure on the tasting notes: Although the experience was amazing and I’d recommend it to anyone, I was at the tail end of a 24-hour bout of mild food poisoning (and/or exhaustion sickness) and had hardly any appetite or palate to be tasting anything.  So unfortunately the tasting itself was rather forced.

八海山 普通酒 Hakkaisan Futsushu
Seimaibuai: 60%
Tasting Notes: Coconut, macademia nut, very light
Price: $20

八海山 本醸造 Hakkaisan Honjozo
八海山 吟醸 Hakkaisan GinjoRice Type: Gohyaku-Mangoku
Seimaibuai: 55%
Sake Meter Value: 6+ (dry)
Tasting Notes: Creamier, nuttier and sweeter than the futsushu, mild sourness, 15.5% vol.
Price: $40

八海山 吟醸 Hakkaisan Ginjo
Rice Type: Yamada-Nishiki
Seimaibuai: 50%
Sake Meter Value: 6+ (dry)
Tasting Notes: nutty, rain water, mineral, 15.6% vol.
Price: Unknown

八海山 純米吟醸 Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo八海山 純米吟醸 Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo
Rice Type: Yamada-Nishiki
Seimaibuai: 50%
Sake Meter Value: 5+ (dry)
Tasting Notes: nutty, coconut, hot springs, 15.6% vol.
Price: Unknown

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Buseoksa Buddhist TempleJohn, Gom and I arrived in Seoul on January 31st, and just finished day 4 of our South Korean adventure.  Gom, who was raised in Seoul and is a close friend from the MPA program in Paris, has been an absolutely amazing host.  In addition to enjoying the beauties and mysteries of Seoul, on Sunday at 10pm we drove 3 hours to Buseoksa, the “Temple of the Floating Stone”.  This Buddhist temple, constructed in 676 AD during the Silla dynasty, is the oldest standing temple in South Korea.  At 4am we hiked up the hill to the temple to witness the ancient dawn ceremony, the daily meditation and homage to the Buddha.  It was like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to the 7th century.

The other highlight to the South Korea visit was the food and the drinks.  I would challenge anyone to find a more food and drink oriented culture.  I’m serious, Koreans never stop eating and drinking!  There’s actually a designation for a Korean man’s drinking tolerance that is listed on many Live Octopusprofessional resumes.  Eating is ritualistic as well and I tried many delicious and exotic (to the Western palate) dishes, including raw sea squirt, live octopus, fermented fish, Ddeok Galbi beef rib, grilled squid, silk worm cocoons, grilled eel, raw sea cucumber, and enough kimchi to give a large elephant indigestion.  And this barely scratches the surface.

With so much live and moving food, I guess you can’t blame the Koreans for the high level of alcohol consumption.  Throughout the trip I tried many different types of soju, and fruit and herbal wines.  None of the drinks were too complex but everything was quite refreshing and served as a great accompaniment to the diverse strong flavors and raw sea fare.

Andong SojuThe most common drink was certainly soju, which accompanied virtually every single meal from breakfast to dinner.  Soju (소주), Korea’s staple beverage, is a clear, slightly sweet distilled spirit, made from grain or sweet potatoes.  It is generally inexpensive and typically is 20% alcohol by volume.  Although soju is not seen as a premium high quality spirit, the city of Andong makes the country’s best quality soju out of select ingredients, using traditional methods, and can reach alcohol levels as high as 50% or 100 proof.  Andong soju carries a government Makgeolliseal and can command more than 20 times the price of standard commercial soju.

Another traditional drink, makgeolli (막걸리), is a milky, off-white, sweet alcoholic beverage made from rice.  Traditionally makgeolli was a peasants’ or farm workers’ drink, although today white-collar and blue-collar Koreans alike enjoy the beverage at the local seafood restaurants.

막걸리 소주 Makgeolli
Tasting Notes: sweet fermented buttermilk, pineapple
Rating: N/A
Pairing: 홍어찜 洪魚 fermented fish.  This dish is absolutely addicting and easily the most bizarre flavor combination I’ve ever tasted in my life.  The Fermented Fishfish reaks of rubbing alcohol and a typical new comer would immediately discard it as way passed due.  The initial flavor is sweet and extremely moist and tender and then all the sudden, BAM!, the rubbing alcohol quickly creeps in, shooting right to your nose, causing an intense yet soothing sensation.

안동소주 일품 Andong Premium Soju
Tasting Notes:
A very aromatic and spicy nose with immediate yet distant and subtle background aromas of rubbing alcohol and formaldehyde, followed by more pronounced macedemia nut, almonds, and pineapple.  A dry and linear soju with mild rubbing alcohol on the attack and the finish, and aromatic coconut and subtle piña colada flavors on the midpalate.
Rating: 8/20
Pairing: 산낙지 live octopus, it actually tries to get away from you!  Just make sure to hold on tightly to you chop sticks and watch out for those tentacles!

매화수 Cherry Blossom Wine
Tasting Notes:
semi-sweet, light-bodied, very aromatic nose and flavors of cherry blossom
Rating: N/A
Pairing: 미더덕 raw sea squirt

인삼주 Ginseng Wine
Tasting Notes: off-dry, light-bodied, very aromatic nose and flavors of ginseng
Rating: N/A
Pairing: 삼계탕 chicken and ginseng soup

Stay tuned for 복분자주 Rubus Coreanus Black Raspberry Wine, upon my return to Seoul on the 9th or 10th of February.

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