Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Oenophile has returned!

Greetings, fellow Oenophiles!

Hubby and I just returned from our trip to Belgium. The reason was ostensibly so we could attend my mother's family reunion and he could meet the Belgian side of the family. However, we had our own agendas. He planned to drink his way across the country by sampling as many Belgian beers as possible, and I planned to take advantage of access to a greater variety of European, specifically French, wines.

I've only given one restaurant website because it's the only one that had a version in English.

We spent the first couple of days in Brussels, and, I found out later from my cousins, managed to eat at somewhat touristy restaurants while we were there. The first night, we had moules frites (mussels steamed with white wine served with Belgian -- not French -- fries) at Restaurant Vincent. The tour guides had advertised this as a meat place, but the menu was half seafood, and about three fourths of the other people in the restaurant were eating mussels as well. We shared a bottle of the 2007 de La Chapelle Sauvignon (no type of Sauvignon given, I assume Blanc). It was very light and mineral with a floral nose, kind of like a Pinot Gris, but a little fruitier like an Oregon Pinot Gris.

The next night, we took advantage of the Prix Fixe menu at Aux Armes de Bruxelles to have some of our favorite Belgian foods. These included Belgian endives steamed, wrapped in ham, and baked in a Gruyere sauce with a hint of nutmeg, and Flemish Stew, which is beef stew made with beer (of course). We had the 2004 La Bastide Dauzac (Margaux appellation), made by Andre Lurton. It had a fruity nose with a hint of green-ness and was medium-bodied with soft tannins. The web site gave the following blend: Cabernet Sauvignon 58%, Merlot 37%, Cabernet Franc 5%. Yes, it played well with the food.

We did make a very nice wine discovery in Blankenberge, a small coastal town where the Belgians like to take holidays. We got very lucky in that the weather was good all weekend. Odette, the proprietor of the Belle Epoque Hotel, served an excellent red wine the night of the reunion as well as the following night for after-dinner drinks. It was the 2007 La Sartan from the Cotes du Ventoux region of France. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault, it was full-bodied, fruity with enough oak and butter to make it silky, and nicely balanced, as it went well with food and on its own. I had never heard of the Cotes du Ventoux region of France, which is essentially between Rhone and Provence, but I will definitely be looking for more reds from this area!

On Monday, it was off to Brugge, a town that is known for its medieval architecture, canals, and lots of tourists.


Another canal with swans:

Main square with tourists:

Beer at the Halve Moon Brewery in Brugge:

We heard more English spoken there than Dutch, but I wanted to go with Hubby because it's where my parents honeymooned, so they brought me and my sister there many years later, and I remembered it as being really pretty. We ate dinner at Bistro Arti's, which is known for its modern take on Belgian food. We drank the 2006 Monfil Tinto (Carinera, Spain), a blend of 70% Grenacha, 30% Tempranillo. The nose is smoky currant, and the wine itself had nice dark fruit and good acidity. It went very well with the mushrooms that came with my duck and the peppercorn sauce with Hubby's steak.

Tuesday found us in Ghent, which is also famous for medieval architecture and canals, but not quite so many, and, honestly, it was a bit of a letdown after Brugge. It was also under construction with cranes mixed in with the historic towers:

We may have felt differently had we actually been staying in the historic part, where we found a cafe that resonated with our math geekiness:

Being in the 'burbs allowed us to discover the Restaurant Patyntje, which is in a mansion in a residential area on the river. Once we had walked and walked and walked to get there, we felt we had earned our dinner. We had the house wine, a 2007 Louis de Jolimont Cabernet Sauvignon (Vin de Pays d'Oc). Nice nose with a hint of butter/oak, black currant, and a spicy finish. We found it to be nicely full-bodied for a French wine.

Antwerp was the next stop. By that time, our feet were worn out from walking on cobblestones, and we'd seen a bunch of historic stuff, so we kept the educational part to a minimum with the Cathedral and the Reubens House. I got to go shopping, not for diamonds, but for clothes because the European clothes actually fit me. We stumbled into the Cafe/Restaurant De Kaai our second night there while looking for one mentioned in the guidebooks that had closed, but we didn't mind. Restaurant De Kaai is on the river, and we sat on the heated patio and enjoyed watching the boats go in and out of the harbor. There, Hubby was able to eat pheasant, which was only allowed to be served after October 15, and we shared a bottle of 2006 Martino Biscardo Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Veneto, Italy). This was the best Valpolicella I've ever tasted. A blend of Corvino and Rondinella, the nose is incredibly fruity, and there is a little spice, chocolate, and vanilla on the palate. (Note: when I did a search on this wine, I found it available here in the 'States. It's worth a taste if you find it!)

In Antwerp, there's a bar called the Eleventh Commandment that salvaged statues from old churches. I think that they all look quite happy in their current home, although the large statue of St. Therese of Lisieux in the women's W.C. (not pictured) was a little creepy:

Our final day took us back to Brussels in anticipation of flying out the following day. Hubby had been looking forward to fish in the Place Saint Catherine area, where the fish markets used to be when Brussels had a river and port. We ate at La Belle Maraichere, where we finished off the trip with a 5-course dinner and a bottle of 2006 Chateau de la Roulerie Chenin Sec (Loire Valley). This could qualify as a Big Ass White, all floral with some lychee and lime. My note is that it's great with fish.

One thing we really enjoyed about European restaurants was that the pace of dining isn't as all rushed. In other words, the focus is on the experience for the diner, not on turning tables. When we reserved a table, we came in to see a little "Reserve" sign on the table, and dinner frequently took two to three hours. Although we liked it, I wonder how many American diners would enjoy that.

I have to give one beer comment. Thanks to Mike from the Brick Store for the recommendation to seek out the Bierhuis Kulminator in Antwerp. We've all heard of cellaring wine, but they cellar and age beer as well as keep a large amount of beer on hand. The menu is huge, so I asked for a recommendation from Leen Boudewijn, one of the owners. I had and loved the Malheur 12, and then Hubby and I had an Orval, a Trappist beer, from the year we got married (2004). It's kind of depressing to think that we're now going to have to pay $10 for beers we were paying 3-4 Euros for over there.

Here's a picture of the bar at the Bierhaus Kulminator:

Their beer fridge is way better than your beer fridge (Brick Who?):

Finally, a couple of Belgian sommeliers followed us home:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tasting Notes: Que Syrah Shiraz? JavaMonkey Thursday Wine Series 10/2/08

I apologize in advance for any typos in this post. I'm writing with a 15-lb cat sitting on my right hand. It's kind of like in the old Anglican "Book of Common Prayer," wherein someone gets to "sitteth upon the right hand. And purreth at the notion of yummy red wine." Okay, maybe that last bit wasn't in there, but Jess did pour some good reds at last Thursday's tasting. The theme was Shiraz/Syrah, so that meant lots of dark fruit and purple teeth for all!

2006 Rojo Mojo Shiraz (La Mancha, Spain):
Completely aged in stainless steel, this wine had a fruit peel nose, light berry and dark plum flavors on the palate, and a raspberry finish
Rating: Good

2005 Abundance Syrah (Lodi, California):
This winery is definitely going on the itinerary for our spring trip to Lodi. It's a family operation, and they monitor every aspect of production. It had that rich, deep flavor associated with Lodi wines (hence why we're going there). Light caramel or licorice overtone, medium fruit middle, and spicy finish.
Rating: Very Good

2004 Bradgate Syrah (Stellenbosch, South Africa):
Astringent, antiseptic nose. Smooth, but with eucalyptus flavors on the palate crowding out any fruit that might have been there. Other comments heard as people tasted this wine included, "plastic" and "Band-Aid."
Rating: Moo (for those reading for the first time, this is my rating for wines I really don't like, taken from one hideous North Carolina wine that was named for a show cow)

2004 Niner Syrah (Paso Robles, California):
Dark fruit nose, nicely balanced with good acidity, smooth and fruity
Rating: Very Good

2007 Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone (Cotes-du-Rhone, France):
Earthy/loamy nose with fruit around the edges. Almost too smooth in that it slides right off the palate. I could tell I'd drunk it, but it was a very quick, "Bonjour! Voulez vous buvez moi? Au revoir!" (Practicing French for upcoming trip to Europe) It did improve with the lovely cheese and salami wine munchies, which brought out some of the dark fruit.
Rating: Bien

2005 Boarding Pass Shiraz (South Australia):
We've had this one before and actually gave a bottle of it to my father, who travels a lot with his consulting work. It got my parents tipsy pretty quickly when we drank it with them over the summer, but 15.7% alcohol content will do that to those who are not accustomed to drinking wine regularly, I guess. It had a slight green nose, but was another very fruity, almost jammy, wine with some acidity and a smooth finish.
Rating: Very Good

Thanks, Jess, for another good tasting and for reading my mind. I had just commented to Hubby on Thursday morning that it would be a good day for "Medium-Ass Reds" with the cool weather and all.

Speaking of cool weather, we're having an oenophile friend over for dinner, so here's our summer to fall transitional menu:

Roasted butternut squash dip with crostini
Tomato and buffalo mozzarella kebabs (because we still have lots of little tomatoes that are ripening in our veggie garden)

First course:
Butternut squash ravioli with pancetta and sage
Mixed greens with goat cheese, toasted walnuts, and dried cranberries
Homemade tarragon vinaigrette

Main course:
Zinfandel braised beef brisket with onions & potatoes
Good bread/rolls

Apple pie w/ ice cream

Wine: Medium- to full-bodied reds

Frequency of blog posts may go down over the next couple of weeks as we travel to Belgium. I'm bringing my computer, but I'm not sure how accessible -- or expensive -- internet access will be. I'll try to blog highlights as I go. Meanwhile, drink good wine, enjoy the cool weather, and eat lots of squash.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wine Dinners, aka, Pairing for Dummies: Room at 12 and Feast

As an oenophile who also happens to really like food, I love wine dinners, especially ones where someone else does all the pairing work for me. As luck would have it, I have two to report on this week. They actually took place last week, but I'm still playing catch up.

On September 21, Hubby and I took advantage of Concentrics Restaurants' Wine Week Atlanta and went to Room at Twelve. The menu of this self-described "modern American steakhouse" has a range of meat-centric entrees as well as fish and, surprisingly, sushi. We went with the prix fixe menu for the Wine Week dinner.

The fun thing about wine dinners is that you get to see how food changes the taste and feeling of a wine, hopefully for the better. At this wine dinner, we got two wines per course. The general manager told us that they had featured a different winery every night, and this evening, they were all from the E&J Gallo Winery. I admit to being a little shocked -- a classy restaurant with Gallo wine? I remembered Gallo as being the stuff in jugs that my parents would make wine coolers with, and when we visited the Healdsburg tasting room, we weren't really impressed with the offerings that weren't in jugs. Plus, they were one of the few that made us pay for a tasting. The wines we got for the wine dinner were generally good, and I realized while writing this that they're different international wineries under the Gallo umbrella. They were as follows (I apologize for the lack of vintages; that information was not supplied):

Appetizer Course:
McWilliams Riesling (Southeastern Australia): Oak/citrus nose with minerality and subtle tropical fruit. My reaction was, "This is a Riesling?" I've had several dry Rieslings, but this is more like a Sauvignon Blanc.
Martin Codax Albarino (Rias Baixas, Spain): Lychee and soft fruit nose, very herbal along the back and sides of the palate. Interesting herbal finish.

The first course, an excellent wild American shrimp and miso soup, had savory light orange broth with slices of mushroom and green onion. The shrimp itself tasted like it had been marinated in garlic and herbs before being put in the soup. It smoothed and brought out the fruit in the Riesling, whereas the Albarino became more mineral and acid.

Salad Course:
The second course, an arugula salad with walnuts, goat cheese, raisins, cranberries, apricots, and red onion, was also served with white wine.

Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand): The nose was herbal and reminded us of how our tomato vines smell when we pick the tomatoes. The wine itself was fairly mineral with a little citrus. The salad calmed the green qualities of the wine and brought out floral notes.

MacMurray Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley, California): Subtle nose with citrus and vanilla notes and some acidity. The finish was lingering. The food highlighted the floral qualities and coaxed a hint of vanilla from it.

Third Course:
With this course, I felt I was in a "modern American steakhouse." The New Zealand rack of lamb with panzanella and zucchini mint sauce was served rare and turned out to be quite garlicky, especially when heated for leftovers later in the week. All the flavors of the dish worked well together.

Don Miguel Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina): Dark fruit/berry nose that leads to a smooth red and a nice, buttery finish. Hubby and I agreed we liked this one better on its own. The food went well with it but gave it a little bite at the end.
Louis Martini Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, California -- did you really need me to tell you that?): I can see why they paired this with the lamb. It has mint and spice on the nose, and is definitely a big, spicy Cabernet. The food smoothed it out and brought out nice dark fruit.

The GM brought the McWilliams Shiraz out for us to try with the lamb. It was supposed to go with dessert, a rich chocolate layer cake. It actually went really well with the lamb and with the cake, which gave it a little smoke and brought out more dark fruit. The other wine to go with dessert, the Gallo Family Cabernet Sauvignon, was very smooth on its own with a little caramel to it. The dessert washed it out. The GM also let us try some Plunger Head Zinfandel (Dry Creek, California), which was like drinking spice cake and earned a "Zin-gasm" comment. However it, too, was killed by the cake.

In spite of our vows not to eat again for a week after that dinner, Hubby and I found ourselves at Feast the following Tuesday evening for their Summer Harvest Australian Wine Dinner. It ended up being a beautiful night to sit outside, and we even got to hear famous violinist (at least in Decatur) Kirsten Browning play. Oh, the food and wine were good, too.

The appetizers included beet and goat cheese crostini, chicken satay, and cucumber slices with salmon, dill, cream, and capers. It was served with the 2005 Chrismont Riesling (King Valley, Victoria), which had a pineapple/citrus nose, tropical fruit taste, and dry finish.

The Massoni Sauvignon Blanc (Mornington Peninsula, Victoria) smelled like seashells to me and tasted of lime, mint, and stone. It made sense to pair it with the ceviche-like citrus marinated shrimp, scallops, and squid wrapped in bibb leaves and served over a passionfruit puree. We couldn't find the "spicy chile sauce" mentioned on the food list.

One of the fun things about wine and beer dinners at Feast is that I get to try foods I would otherwise not eat. The second course was pan-seared Ostrich medallions with bacon and summer beans. It was served with the Austins Shiraz from Geelong, Victoria. Dark plum and ripe fruit aroma, tannic and acidic with spice and more plums, it took on a nice overtone with the food. The chef later came out and confessed that it was her first time to cook Ostrich (I don't know why I feel the need to capitalize that; I just do). She did an excellent job. It was tough to cut, but very tender to chew. The applewood smoked bacon wrapped around the medallions kept it from being dry.

The third course consisted of smoked pheasant, peppers stuffed with Israeli cous cous, and chocolate hazelnut vinaigrette. The Six Foot Six Shiraz/Viognier (Geelong, Victoria) was my favorite wine of the evening. Blackberry aromas promise and deliver lots of blackberry fruit with pepper and a hint of chocolate. It's very smooth to drink with and without food.

Finally, dessert sounded strange but tasted very good. Olive oil and thyme cake was topped with sweet cream and served with macerated figs. One table member liked it so much he told the owner and chef he'd like to see it on the regular menu. The Chrismont La Zona Rosato Mezzanotte (King Valley, Victoria) is a rose wine comprised of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Barbera, and 25% Marzemino. It has lots of berry characteristics, specifically cranberry and strawberry. Overall, I thought it was nicely balanced. Hubby drank it, which is as much of a compliment as a pink wine will get from him.

Those were our wine dinner adventures. I'm glad it made for a low effort week on my part, especially since Hubby and I had been up in the mountains with some of his work colleagues, and I may have been up playing Rock Band 2 until 5:30 one morning after having helped to polish off a huge bottle of Bogle Petite Sirah. One of said work buddies is a former chef, so we ate well up there, too. What have I been doing since the hedonistic weekend and the decadent wine dinners? Going to the gym and taking advantage of the lovely weather we've been having to go walking/jogging outside. A lot. I'm probably still a few thousand calories behind.

JavaMonkey wine tasting tomorrow! I have no clue what it is. We stopped by today on the way home from the Decatur Farmers' Market, but Jess hadn't put out new lists. Maybe she doesn't know what it will be, either.