Friday, April 27, 2007

Putting a Cork in It

In the last year or so, the cork-or-no-cork article has been a staple of wine journalism, with writers and winemakers making pronoucements about the fate of the old cork in the face of the rise of the synthetic cork and screwcap.

I've noticed a pattern in these articles. Almost without exception, the cork is given up as dead before the first paragraph is over. Alternate closure is on the rise; it's de rigueur in Australia and New Zealand already; there are sightings among the finest winemakers of other countries. The conclusion: resistance is futile.

The articles usually refer to a raging debate worldwide on the subject, but there is precious little debate in the pieces. If you don't side with the screwcap lot, you're thought a backward dope. Advocates point to the amount of wine lost every year from oxidation due to corks. A recent article in the Sun emphasized this point. Cork partisans are intended to lay down their arms in the face of these sobering statistics, and protest no more. And, indeed, it is a strong argument.

But, before I explain why I am still for the survival of the cork, let's get one thing straight. The backing of alternative closure has nothing to do with modernity or progress or the saving of precious vino. It has to do with money. Every sommelier, every distributor, every importer, every winemaker I've talked to about corks vs. screwcaps has told me point blank why they prefer (if they do prefer) the latter: screwcaps will cause them to make more money.

So, why should anyone stick with unstable corks? Two reasons, by my sights. And they're damn good ones. One is political, the other aesthetic. First the political. I remember taking a course at the International Wine Center when I was a naive little wine lover, when the instructor brought up the subject of corks. He was all for screwcaps to cover the earth as quickly as possible. (I think part of the reason for this knee-jerk support of screwcaps is that wine people, aware of their reputation as fusty traditionalists, want to appear hip and forward-looking. In other words: corks are square.) I raised my hand and asked whether a move to screwcaps wouldn't put hundreds upon hundreds of laborers in Portugal—where the cork biz has long been centered—out of work. The instructor screwed up his face. "Well, that's no argument for being against screwcaps."

I've wondered ever since: why the hell not? Does the welfare of countless families, largely poor, have no place in this discussion? And how is the idea of rich winemakers and restauranteurs saving money more important that entire families, many of whom have harvested cork for generations, losing their entire livelihood? The attitude seems callous and ruthlessly capitalist in the extreme.

Then there is aesthetics. And, say what you will, aesthetic concerns are an important part of wine. We care about the appearance of the wine, and rendering of the label, the shape of the bottle, the cut of the glass it's poured into, the way the wine is presented when brought to the table. Every aspect of making and drinking wine is done with a little bit of art.

Put simply, corks have poetry, while synthetic corks and screw caps are flatly prosaic. The latter are there to stop up the wine and nothing else. They offer nothing to engage the mind or eye. Look at a cork and you can imagine the labor and craftmanship that went into making it; look at the name and design printed on the sides and you understand the pride and care taken by the winemaker. Synthetic corks and screwcaps all look the same. The say nothing more than: I was manufactured by machines along with thousand others like me in an ugly factory that blights the surrounding neighborhood, where I employ dozens in mind-numbing jobs.

Humans, in the name of progress, tend to rush headlong toward the new, the utilitarian, the practical. They willfully strip their existences of all beauty and novelty in the name of getting along. Ornamentation is not strictly needed on a building; therefore, dispense with it. Concrete is easier to lay down than bluestone; go with the concrete. Jeans and a t-shirt are easier to don and wear than a suit and tie, so put that suit in mothballs. It all makes sense, and the world gets uglier and uglier.

As the years go by, there is less and less romance in the world. Why rob the world on one more bit of romance by so hastily consigning the cork to the ashheap?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cocktail Wasteland

New York is the cocktail center of the universe, hands down. But at the same time the city is filled with incompetent bartenders who know how to make, perhaps, 12 drinks tops. And those they don't make very well.

I've complained about this before (though not on this blog, yet), but lately the fact has been sent screaming home to me once again. I was in a Sazerac mood this week, and hoped against hope that I could find one on the town without having to make it myself. Tuesday night I was at O'Neal's near Lincoln Center. I asked the bartender if he knew how to make a Sazerac. I was startled to receive an immediate, affirmative answer. Alas, it was too good to be true. The man returned in a minute to confirm that a Sazerac was composed of bourbon and simple syrup. Sigh. I ordered a Manhattan, making sure to emphasize I wanted it made with rye. Don't say that, and you'll get bourbon.

The next night I was at Joe Allen's in the theatre district. Joe Allen's bartenders are smart and make a solid cocktail. So my hopes were again up when I asked if the bartender knew how to make a Sazerac. Yes, he did. Bingo! But—oh, no—they didn't have Peychaud's Bitters behind the bar. Well, at least he knew the drink required Peychaud's. Seeing he was smart, I asked if he knew how to make a Hurricane. (I'm in a New Orleans mood lately.) No, he admitted. Again, I orders a Manhattan, made with rye.

I understand that most people behind a bar see themselves as actors, musicians and such. But if they're to take the job, shouldn't they glance at a bartender's guide from time to time, to bone up on a few unknown drinks. Just in case. You can count on them to make the dopey cocktails with the embarrassing names and embarrassing ingredients, and the trendy drinks of the moment (Cosmopolitan, Mojito, whatever), plus a few classic cocktails that remain in steady demand (Martini, Manhattan, Magarita, etc.), but almost nothing else.

Oh, well. Off to the Pegu Club again.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the Cellar at Wallse

I profiled sommelier Aldo Sohm and his cellar at Wallse in today's New York Sun. Here's the link and the text.

In the Cellar: In Praise of Zierfandler

"Zierfandler—I'm a crazy guy on that," Aldo Sohm, the friendly sommelier as Wallsé, Kurt Gutenbrunner's cozy Austrian restaurant in Greenwich Village, said. Well, fine. It's good to have enthusiasms. But what is a Zierfandler anyway?

"It's a wine with an aromatic profile completely against the mainstream," Mr. Sohm explained, pouring out a sampling of light-gold liquid. "You don't find this kind of pink-grapefruity flavor, this pure spice-driven taste. And it's very clean. People love it." After one sip, I don't blame those people one bit.

Like most of the wines on Wallsé's list, the Zierfandler comes from Austria. Ninety-five percent of the world crop of the little-know varietal is grown in the Thermenregion area just south of Vienna. Until recently, most of it stayed in Austria, happily guzzled by residents of Salzburg and Innsbruck. But the rising profile of the brisk and refreshing, food-friendly grüner veltliner — the country's most famous native grape — and Austria's potent spins on riesling have changed that. Germany remains Austrian wine's biggest export market, but America is quickly closing in.

"Grüner veltliner has become very hot," Mr. Sohm said. "It was always known as something easygoing, not so special, low in alcohol, and really refreshing. But you find examples of it that are up at the top range. Those wines lose some of this crisp and easygoing character, but they are really rich. And now you see a lot of tastings where you have grüner veltliner against top Burgundies. And many times, they are preferring the grüner veltliners." He was referring primarily to the so-called Judgment of Vienna, a London tasting organized in 2003 by the wine writers Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson in which the judges awarded grüners seven of the top 10 spots. Some famous Burgundies and California wines were left in the dust.

Still, as much as grüner is surging, it's still probably only known to one in 20 New Yorkers. And if you don't know grüner, Wallsé's wine list can look like a Germanic cryptogram. "People open up the wine menu and the only words they recognize are red and white," Mr. Sohm said.

He says it with a smile, however, because Mr. Sohm loves to educate, and particularly Americans. "I know they feel uncomfortable. Why should you order a wine for $125 that you have never heard of? But I can promise you one thing. If you don't like the wine, you just have to give me a blink of the eye." According to the sommelier, only one diner has resorted to blinking in his three years at Wallsé and its associated restaurants, Blaue Gans and Café Sabarsky. "What I love in Americans is they are so open-minded. If they don't know something, they taste it."

Among the things these openminded Yankees are tasting is Neuburger, a white Austrian varietal with a nutty flavor, and Zweigelt, a dry, low-alcohol red that's almost as vegetal as it is fruity. They also sample Rotgipler, another white grown in same region as Zierfandler but imbued with more richness and spice than its neighbor. "Women love this wine," Mr. Aldo whispered, as if passing along the recipe for Love Potion No. 9. (Is it possible that "Rotgipler" sounds romantic if said with the right accent?)

If the Rotgipler doesn't work on the ladies, Mr. Sohm could try to impress them with a tour of his trophy case. The Austrian-born 35-year-old is something of a competition addict. Before moving to New York in July 2004 to work at Mr. Gutenbrunner's restaurants, he was named top sommelier in Austria four years running. Once stationed in America, he felt the need to prove himself once again, entering a taxing two-day competition in New York City organized by the American Sommelier Association. The trials included a written exam, a blind tasting, food and wine pairings, and even a cigar recommendation. He prevailed and was named "Best Sommelier in America" in January.

Now he is training to compete in the annual face-off of the International Association of Sommeliers, to be held next month on the island of Rhodes. It will be tough: One of the exams on the rigorous agenda is described only as "surprise."

After Rhodes, Mr. Sohm promised, he will retire from competitive wine-slinging. "It's going to be my last competition," he said. Well, break out the Zierfandler!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sherry-Lehmann Shifts East

Sherry-Lehmann—the keeper of the Bordeaux, the holder of well-heeled custom, the intimidating nexus of oenophlia, the one New York wine store out-of-towners have heard of—is moving.

The move, however, is only geographical, not spiritual, since the shop's only shifting from one block of the affluent Upper East Side to another block of the Upper East Side. In fact, if anything, it's new location will be more in tune with its image. For decades it's been on Madison Avenue near 61st, a ritzy address to be sure. But now it will actually be on Park Avenue itself, at the northeast corner of 59th.

The space is Art Deco, all gold and black metal. According to articles, the owners want to keep the cozy, woody feel of the Madison space and will outfit the new digs accordingly. Construction is supposed to conclude by August, when the grand opening is set to happen. The logistics of transporting $1.5 million in wine from one space to the other should be interesting. Since the addresses are only a few blocks from eachnother, I guess they could just handcart it over. They better hope, however, that those wine thiefs that just robbed that Silicon Valley baron of his entire cellar don't discover their schedule.

Hail, Breton!

I had a nice surprise last night as I made my way through a bottle of Chenin Blanc from the Chinon region of the Loire Valley, made by Catherine and Pierre Breton. I had tasted the Bretons' variety of Cabernet Francs from Bourgueil at the Polaner tasting. It was a rare opportunity to experience the wide range of expression that often undervalued grape is capable of.

They had not had the Chinon at the tasting, so I didn't know what to expect. Some makers that have a token white in their line-up make it their last priority. Not the Bretons. It was pleasant and full as I opened it, a good Chenin Blanc. But I came to realize that it was too cold. As it warmed to the room, it came into its own, mellow and generous-bodied, tasting of lemon, melon and bread, with just an slivery edge of spice. There was great depth and pleasure in it. I finished the bottle, it was so enjoyable and interesting.

The wine is organic and biodynamic, for those who care about such things. I think I paid $20 for it. Maybe less. Give it a try if you see it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Stemming the Tide

Since they are becoming so popular and trendy, I feel I should come out with my opinion on wine tumblers. You know, those crystal abortions that lack a base or stem and sit in the hands of shallow poseurs. Oops. Guess I gave away the old opinion there, didn't I?

So, I'm against them. And, quite frankly, I don't see how anyone who's serious about wine or just plain likes drinking it can be in favor of them. You wouldn't store your wine bottles next to a radiator, would you? So why would you cradle your wine in the heat-generator that is your hot, sweaty palm. With every minute you're cooking the wine, making it warmer. I don't care how cool it may look in your hand, if you care about the vino, you'll keep your fingers on a glass stem and let the juice only have contact with your lips.

I can't get away from these things, lately. Bartenders and waiters bring my wine to me in tumblers without asking my preference in glassware. I have to send them back and look like a prig. At the better restaurants, like Tabla and Wallse, they understand and don't blink and quicky spirit the ugly things away. They must get a lot of this sort of balking. But I'm surprised they have these abominations in their kitchen in the first place. Are they just vacuous trend followers, or did Riedel strongarm them into buying a few boxes.

And that's another thing. How can a company as serious about wine and wine glassware promote such nonsense? Their "O" wine tumbler series just seems like a bald-faced scheme to make hay off public ignorance.

A sommelier recently alerted me to another reason to object: fingerprints. On a stemmed glass, unsightly marks are relugated to the thin stem and are thus hard to spot. On the tumbler, they're everywhere. A glass of wine should be a beautiful sight, not a study in smudge.

The fashion will pass. And I'll be glad.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Crush on Crush

I paid a visit the other day to Crush, the swanky, super-sophisticated wine shop on E. 57th Street Street, and was reminded how much I like the store, which is only a couple years old.

Crush is designed in such a way as to be quite intimidating at first glance. It's a sleek, modern space, with all the bottles arranged by grape and lined up along the right hand wall in specialized wine racks so that the bottles lie on their sides, labels facing out. A hushed, softly lit tasting room is at the back to the left. And at the rear of the shop is a glassed-in room of Crush's prized and rare stock. It's a cool set-up, and an imposing one.

But if you don't turn and run away in fright, you'll find that Crush is far from the snobbish palace of oenophilia it seems to be. The help is extremely knowledgeable and very helpful. Most clerks are extremely friendly and giving of their time and wisdom. A young man named Trevor, in particular, I have found very approachable.

And then there's their selection. They favor Louis/Dressner and Neal Rosenthal, two importers I admire. Their Riesling, Gruner Veltliner and Chenin Blanc holdings are broad. They stand by small, principled growers. And they keep grapes and ACs you've never heard of in steady stock. Their Jura collection, for instance, is impressive. I've never bought a bad bottle there. And I was pleased to see that almost every bottle that stood out for me at the recent Polaner spring tasting was already there.

Now, if only they'd open a shop in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Zweigelt and Weiner Schnitzel

I had lunch today at Blaue Gans, one of the Austrian restaurants run by Kurt Gutenbrunner in New York. I've also been to Wallse. They're both good. They make me excited about spaeztle and red cabbage.

But I must admit that the main reason I get excited when I visit Gutenbrunner's restaurants is the wine lists, which are all Austrian. I'm mad for Gruner Veltliner. It's always a fun glass, even the run-of-the-mill stuff. But I love even better the other eccentric, obscure grapes sommelier Aldo Sohm puts on the list. Zierfandler. Roter Veltliner. Eisenthur. Blaufrankisch. They're all good, because Sohm picked them out, and the quality of Austrian wine is so high. But every glass is an adventure. You don't know what you're getting into. If there's anything I love in wine, it's encountering a new grape for the first time. I'm a sucker for the underdog.

I had a Zweigelt from the Burgenland with my Goulash and Schnitzel. (That last sentence is as much fun to say as it was to write.) It was medium-bodied, well-structured, with vegetal notes within a front of darkish subdued red fruit. (I want to say "matte finish" fruit.) I was good and went with the food.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Chenin at the End

The New York City Polaner Selections spring tasting was a few weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to writing about it. So sue me.

I found the event, which took place in the Puck Building at Lafayette and Houston, altogether delightful. One of the best things about these tastings—and the thing that continues to floor me again and again—is that the person behind the table pouring sample after sample to an endless parade of wine-sniffing slobs is often none other than the winemaker him or herself. The name on the label, standing right there like any schlepping salesman.

I had the privelege of meeting many of the vintners I had long admired and knew only be name. Luca Roagna, the spunky, proud young heir to the famed Piedmont winery, was busy pouring out thimble-like servings of his precious Barbaresco. (I couldn't blame him. His table was among the most crowded at the event, with empty glasses constantly shoved in his face.) He was one of the few class acts there who wouldn't accept water as a glass cleanser, but put a bit a Roagna in instead, swirled it about, and then dumped it before filling the vessel with more Roagna.

Another winemaker who insisted on this bit of ceremony was Stanislao Radikon of Friuli's Radikon ("Water is terrible"), maker of rich, potent, flinty whites. He was a humble man who was grateful for any attempt to communicate in Italian. Most of his full-bodied wines deserved a "Bravo!" Francois Cazin was austere and reserved, just like his Cour-Chevernys. Isaure de Pontbriand of the great Savennieres maker Domaine du Closel was pithy and warm, obviously embued with a sense of humor about her trade.

Alain Renardet-Fache was a funny sight, standing there with his one bottle of Renardat-Fache Vin de Bugey Cerdon Methode Ancestrale. It's the one thing he makes, and if you made something as good as this unique, Gamay-based succulent sparkling wine, you wouldn't feel the need to prove yourself further.

It was a pleasure to meet Jean-Paul Brun of Domaine des Terres Dorees. I drank a lot of his Beaujolais Blanc last summer. And now I know his regular reds are even better, as was a new treat, FRV100, a sparkling Gamay. (What can I say? It was a big day for sparkling Gamays. This summer looks like it just got a lot redder and fizzier.)

Next to Brun were Francoise and Michel Tete, Beaujolais makers almost painfully shy about plying their wares. They shouldn't be. The Domaine du Clos du Fief Prestige 2005 was awfully good, with lots of aging power. In fact, the only unpleasant encounter I had with a winemaker at Polaner was with great Rhone winemaker Eric Texier, who was the picture of stingy French hauteur and couldn't have been more sour-faced if he had tried.

My favorite experience of the tasting, however, came at the end, and almost by accident. The joint was closing up and I was getting ready to go. I wanted to conclude things with an appropriate wine, and someone had told me of a table near the hall that had some sweet wines. I found it. It was fairly deserted, except for a few swells who kept helping themselves to glass after glass. A few half-empty bottles littered the table. I noticed the vintages: 1996, 1989, 1985 and—1971!

I'm not stupid; I poured a glass of the 1971, whatever it was. I tasted. Rich, mellow, deep and complex, with notes of burnt caramel and yeast. What was this? I looked at the simple label. "Moulin Touchais." It was a sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire, a historic estate but not widely known. The wine is incredibly ageworthy, and apparently there had been a '59 floating around, but it was gone. I loved the 1971 though. It contained worlds and inspired deep contemplation about wine, the earth and everything. I was the best wine I had tasted there. The 1985 was nearly as good, but less complex, more on the simply sweet side.

An old man in glasses and a vest and tie was shuffling about behind the table, packing up. I was the winemaker, Alex Wilbrenninck, looking like a box boy, invisible. I told him how much I like the wine. He seemed genuinely touched, but did not make a big show of it.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Other Night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

My friend and I were settled into our aisle seats at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway the other day, ready for our performance of the new Kevin Spacey production of A Moon for the Misbegotten, when a slatternly, bleach-blonde usher came down the aisle to address the general audience.

"Hash anyone sheen shomeone wish a glash of wine," she said in slurred, uncertain English. My friend and I looked at each other, then back at the usher. Was this really happening? Ushers didn't usually talk this way, or talk at all for that matter.

"Shomeone came down here wish a glash of wine. I'm going to find them." She was in earnest. But from the way she talked, it seemed like she was looking for HER glass of wine, one that perhaps someone had stolen from her. She had obviously has a few glasses of something. And by gum!, no one was going to begrudge her another.

She stumbled back up the aisle, not having found the lousy wine thief. Spacey's character spent most of the play drunk.

Riesling Über Alles

One thing I quickly learned as I began to interview sommeliers was that, in private, they all did like I did: drank Riesling. Toward the end of every interview, I asked—as much for my personal information as for the article—what their favorite wine was. Almost without variation, they answered Riesling—the German kind or the Alsatian, or both. They loved and prized it, thought people who preferred big Cabs and Zins chumps.

I've learned since that a quick way into the heart of a wine director or wine store owner was to zero in on the riesling collection. It's almost code for saying: "I know my wine, you can talk to me." I've gotten a lot of inside dope by expressing my preference for this noble grape.

Recently, I wrote about the phenomenon in a column for Culture and Travel magazine. I'm reprinting the column here, since Culture and Travel doesn't yet have an internet link to full articles. I'm also printed a previous unediting version—slightly different from the published version—which I prefer.


By Robert Simonson

Not very long ago, I walked into Crush, the sleek, oenophile’s dream of a wine shop on E. 57th Street in Manhattan. Breezing past the general stock, I headed for the glassed-in room that contains the rare and expensive bottles. Inside was a jovial clerk, with a Kangol cap and a ginger-colored goatee. Giving him a nod, I bypassed the big reds of France and California, which occupied the front of the room, and walked to the small store of classic Rieslings tucked away in the back. The clerk gave me a knowing grin. “Oh,” he said, “you like the good stuff.”

Would-be wine experts across America labor under the delusion that, by calling out for an old Bordeaux or name Burgundy, they are impressing the sommelier with their acumen and good taste. In truth, that wine director is probably stifling a yawn. The secret to stirring the spirit of the man in the cellar rests in one word: Riesling.

The noble white grape—the pride of Germany and Alsace; the criminally underappreciated glory of the wine world; the anti-Chardonnay—has made me many an instantaneous comrade over the years. It’s won me discounts at wine stores, a second glass on the house, and earfuls of inside information. But moreover, it’s earned me instant bonafides as a knowledgeable inbiber. Anyone can bellow out Petrus, Gaja or Screaming Eagle. It take a man of character to pronounce Karthauserhof Eitelsbacher Auslese.

“It’s more a wine professionals’ wine, than a consumer’s wine,” observed Robert Bohr, the sommelier and co-owner of Cru, the vino-centric restaurant off Washington Square. Though the focus of Cru’s novel-length list is Burgundy, Bohr—like a good 75 percent of his occupational brethren—names Riesling as his first choice when uncorking in private.
When a diner sits down at Cru and asks what they have in the way of a Riesling, Bohr’s conclusion is: “They’re very smart or they’re in the restaurant business.” What follows is the royal treatment.
“We shower them with affection. We comment on their intelligence and compliment their wisdom.”

Bohr is not alone in favoring Riesling-loving clientele. “Oh, I like him. I like him a lot,” said “21” Club wine director Phil Pratt of the Riesling man. “Once you get into the flow of the evening, you’re selling all these big-bodied, powerful wines. That’s great, but it kind of beats you up. You see, I taste everything I open. When someone orders a Riesling, it’s like starting the day all over.”

What does Riesling have that experts love it so much? Well, in a word, everything. The swoon-inducing fruit can evoke sources ranging from peach to citrus and what’s known in wine circles as petrol. This riot of flavor is grounded by a strong minerality, and balanced by the best acidity in the business (zippy, racy and taut are the adjectives typically employed). All this, plus a low alcohol content, owing to the northerly climes in which the grape thrives, make it a superlative food wine. Cabaret Sauvignon will crush all but the heartiest meats, but one would be hard pressed to find a meal a Riesling wouldn’t compliment.

Riesling is also a superb conduit of that elusive thing: terroir. “You can go to two different towns in Alsace, a half a mile apart, and get two different expressions of the Riesling,” said Philippe Marchal, a sommelier at Daniel and an Alsace native. Finally, the clincher: it’s cheap. The best Rieslings in the world can be had for under $50; just plain excellent ones for under $30; and lovely quaffers for a measly sawbuck.

One would think, for all that, Riesling should be on top of the world. Well, is once was. A century ago, it was prized more than old first growth Bordeaux. But a flood of poorer German wines tainted the country’s reputation. “When people learn about wine, they start with sweet wine,” theorized Pratt. “And sometimes they start with Blue Nun, which is a really sweet wine, and they assume that’s Riesling.”

Though the grape is vinified every way, from dry (trocken) to off-dry (halbtrocken) to the decadently syrupy (the justly famous dessert wines), it’s the sweet varieties that people most readily identify as the soul of Riesling. And since American consumers have been taught to find gravity only in dry wines, this has hurt. Add to this the intimidating, umlaut-heavy labeling, and the initially bewildering assortment of quality levels (ranging from the dry Kabinett to the botrytized heaven of a Trockenbeerenauslese) and Riesling is a perennial loser on the American market, despite critics’ constant cries that the grape’s day is just around the corner.

While we wait for that day, enjoy the secret and use it to your advantage. Next time you open a wine list or enter a wine shop, say Riesling and get your ego rewarded. “It’s the perfect way to show you’re more intelligent than you probably are,” joked Bohr. Then drink the Riesling for reward number two.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Duty Free Discovery

After this post, it's going to seem like I write about nothing else but kosher wine. Sorry, but it's the time of the year.

Anyway, I went to a Seder yesterday and made a major discovery. One of the attendees was a businessman who had just flown in from Tel Aviv and made an impulse buy at the Duty Free shop at the new airport there. The bottle's label was mostly in Hebrew, but someone at the table translated it as Bazelet ha Golan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine grown in the Golan Heights region. It was a 2001 and it was the star of the evening. Earthy and complex, ripe dark fruit, its tannins strong but integrated, poised somewhere between Old World and New World cab styles. The color was deep and inky, the nose pungent and tantalizing. Aged in French and American barrels. A simply great wine that married perfectly with the brisket, which has been cooking for nearly a day.

I see you can find the 2004 in a few stores here in New York, but not the 2001. The benefits of shopping in the country of origin.

I promise: no more kosher wine blogging. That is, unless someone brings something great to tonight's Seder.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Two for Passover and Beyond

Passover is here, and if you're a wine afficianado and invited to a Seder at a house that is even slightly observant, you've run into the annual problem: where to find a kosher wine that will please the palate as well as the table's sense of ritual?

Like wine the world over during the past decade or so, kosher wine has come a long way recently. Unless you're determined to buy Kedem or some such syrup, you'll have a tough time finding a truly terrible kosher bottle. Still, simple drinkability isn't really the point, is it? And many kosher wines still lack the complexity of their non-kosher cousins, even if they're not mevushal. I've tasted enough kosher wine over the years that I have a few dependable stand-bys up my sleeve. Yarden's Mount Hermon Red, running about $12, is a trustworthy Bordeaux blend from Israel, full and peppery. And Baron Herzog's Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, priced at about $8, may be the best bargain on the market, and quite enjoyable, too.

Once prices climb above $20, I get more wary, because typically the quality doesn't improve much with the cost. But Passover is a special occasion, so something special is called for. So here are two wines which are so world class, you would never know they had a heckscher unless someone told you.

Out of the Priorat region of Spain is Capçanes' Flor de Primavera 2001, a Grenache-dominated red with an impressive silkiness, lively fruit, some spice and rich complexity. This is a beautiful wine. It has an interesting story behind it. The vineyards were used for bulk wine production until about 10 years ago, when the Jewish community of Barcelona asked the company to make them a kosher wine. Going about the assignment, the owners realized the true quality of the vines they were misusing and produced a superior wine that became a cult hit around Spain. Soon, in a flip of the usual situation, non-Jews were pleading with Capcanes to make a non-kosher version of their wine. They did, and both types of wines have been selling well since. Flor de Primavera will set you back $50, but it's worth it.

Jean-Luc Thunevin, the garagist artist of Bordeaux's Chateau Valandraud, needs no introduction. His boutique Bordeaux have been popular for some time. But most probably don't know that he makes a kosher and a kosher mevushal version of the same wine, both of which are nearly as delectable as the original. They most likely wine the prize for Best Kosher Wine in the World. Again, there's a story behind this. Thunevin grew up in Nigeria, where he had many Jewish friends. Once his winery was up and running, he wanted to thank his friends by created a wine for them. A purely selfless gesture. Now, the Chateau Valandraud will take $250 out of your pocket, so it's hard for me to recommend it to a regular consumer. But Jean-Luc makes a second, more affordable label, Virginie de Valandraud, which is priced at $50. It's not as stunning as the Valandraud, but it runs alongs the same themes.

There you go. You've got four glasses of wine to drink at that seder. Might as well enjoy them.