Monday, August 10, 2015

What's Cooking Part I

This month I'll be cooking in Chateau de Bardies for a fantastic family and their many friends.

Here are a few quick photos I've snapped.

Our neighbor, and a dear friend, brought over this unusual vegetable in the squash family. I roasted it with salt, and served it as a puree with just a drizzle of French walnut oil. Simple and tasty as a side to roasted duck.

 Another treat from Christian the neighbor! These teeny plums are bursting with tangy flavor. Thank goodness I had an olive-pitter handy otherwise making this crumble would have taken ages.

 A hot sunny August lunch, and a cool lemony cold cucumber soup.

A quick summer lunch for two: a beet root tart with goat cheese, thyme and orange rind, and a simple salad. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hiking in the Pyrenees Mountains

There is life in the Pyrenees, by which we tend to mean quaint villages, bustling biodynamic markets, and plenty of cheeses and saucissson; and then there is life in the actual high Mountains. Up in these heights, you reach another world.

 Upon returning to the area, I wasted no time in calling a good friend and experienced hiker. I needed to get up into these Mountains again.

We left the car by the Guzet ski station, which is already a fairly steep drive with stunning views of the surrounding, lush, green mountains. From here we followed a well-marked trail that led us onto cliff-faces with metal-hand grips drilled into the rock face to scurry across. Great! Up, up, up we climbed.

Head down to watch one's footfalls, a hike in the Pyrenees offers time to reflect. 

By the early afternoon we made our way to our Chalet, a small stone structure which was formerly a sheep herder's shelter. The departaments of France have generously up-kept many of these structures for hikers to spend the night free of charge.

A stone Chalet in the pyrenees, once used by sheep herder's, now a refuge for hikers.

No matter what you've brought along in your backpack-- no matter how melted, smushed, packaged, or bruised-- food is never so rewarding as high in the Mountains after a challenging climb. An apple feels like a celebration! A warm spoonful of food from a "just add water" packet tastes thoroughly fulfilling.   

On day two we climbed up to the nearest summit, about 2700m, from which we had a stunning view: rocks, valleys, towns that feel world's away, soaring birds of prey.

The descent was fun: a small glacier, a dip in a glacial pool, and climbing over and around big boulders. While hopping over granite rocks, careful of my footing, my brain registered shapes quickly. It seemed as though all of my childhood preparation of jungle-gyms and legos was destined for Mountain climbing. Child potential fulfilled!

The Mountains above Guzet. The notch in the ridge near the center-left is the border with Spain.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Domaine De Ravanes

Domaine De Ravanes - Marc Benin explaining his vineyards and land

What a man, what a vineyard! 

Marc Benin is a very clever person-- he is sharp, dynamic, generous, passionate, and adventurous. And you taste it all in his wines. Marc is the mad scientist of wine growers.

This is anything but ordinary. Domaine De Ravenes is a very particular vineyard. It breaks all of the rules, it veers off track, it gets creative, and it does it all fantastically. 

But how can a vineyard in such a strictly regulated wine-producing country like France be such a rebel? Marc got lucky for an experimental French enologist. He inherited a vineyard which does not have an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée). Sure, this may make marketing a touch harder, but it gives Marc complete liberty to play. 

Domaine De Ravanes - Author, Lola Vardigans, takes a moment to take in the Languedoc light and vines

I'll be honest, I found Marc because of a review from Jancis Robinson who claimed that Marc's Merlot rivals Petrus. Come on, this has to perk anyone's interest. 

Let's see his wines. 

Domaine De Ravanes 

Sanceer & Sauvignon Blanc: Absolutely everything you want in a good-sipping Rose. This wine is exceptionally fresh, has a great scent of fresh ripe white fruits, and makes you hungry! 

Ibis Blanc, 2010: This is something to get a hold of. I warn you, it's strange, and it's likely not for everyone. Marc had some fun making this one. A 50 / 50 blend of grenache blanc and ugni blanc. Ugni blanc? Yes, it's the grape that famously makes cognac. And surprisingly, you can actually taste that cognac flavor in the final moments of its persistent finish. The smell is already incredible: hints of sulfur and minerals. Its well balanced with great acidity and a nice bite of mineral that adds some zing to the fruity flavors of the ugni blanc. 
2012: as above but a bit more fresh and acidic. I liked the bottle with a bit more age better, as the ungi tastes were more prevalent.

Domaine De Ravanes 

Le Renard Blanc 2011: Made from 80 year old vines, this wine is 85% Grenache gris, 15% Macabeau. This would be my summer party wine. It opens up to you with a great nose: tropical, cooked pineapple, fennel, lemony salad. The taste had great acidity and was quite aromatic (orange blossom, even bubble gum). Frankly, the aromatics make the wine one I'd prefer with food. 

Merlot / Cab 2010: Hang on, are we in the Languedoc? Yes. What makes Domaine De Ravanes so cool is that Marc takes from the best and makes it his own. Being a wine lover, of course a good Frenchman would only look to the Bordeaux region, the most famous region for the kings of grapes-- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So he took them to the Languedoc where he rightly predicted that he could make something good. And he did. This wine has a pleasant, understated and balanced nose, which all comes through on the taste. It's nice.

Petit Verdot: Using pre-phylloxera vines, Marc makes one heck of a wine here. It's plush, balanced, fun, chalky, acidic, natural, fresh and with some tastes of cumin and spice. 

Domaine De Ravanes - Marc Benin 

Reserve '08: This is a lovely wine that I just wanted to sip more and more of. It could even use a few more years in the bottle. The nose was beautiful, with a coolness, the smell of soil and apple orchard. The taste was gamy with a bit of chew to it, and the long finish brought out balance and some tastes of baking spices.

Reserve Le Petit Verdot 2008: This rockstar has been en barrique for 40 months! The nose is exceptionally clean and fresh: it's great to just stick your nose into it and breathe! There are notes of new sneakers, leather and the moisture of a stone wall. The taste is austere, meaty, roasted, some rosemary. 

L'Ille 1998: This late harvest wine is 100% ugni blanc (again, the cognac grape). Left on the vines, these grapes pack in sugar making it a great cheese course wine. The nose has apple, cider, autumn and chilliness. The taste is sweet and sour… almost like a warhead candy with syrup and cider flavors. It begs a funky aged cheese! 

Domaine De Ravanes - Quinteszencia & L'Ille

Quinteszencia 20 Dec: This ugni blanc, late harvest has been en barrique for a whopping 76 months. This is a strange wine for a person who is as much a mad scientist drinker as Marc is a wine maker. It smelled a bit like a very aged balsamic (here we're getting the sugars and the wood) and tasted like toffee, carmel and walnuts. 

Here, I'll show you some photos of his beautiful vineyard and home. Not only is the wine fantastic, but this land just breathes vivacity and intrigue. 
A chapel in the woods of the property

Domain De Ravanes - the rugged land of the Languedoc

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Best Gifts are Experiences (...and cases of Bordeaux)

Here's my proposal for a Christmas present that is as memorable as it is delicious.

It wasn't very difficult to dream up what my ideal long-weekend would be: sleeping in French castles, Michelin stared meals, oysters on the bay of Arcachon, and visits with tastings at the world's best Chateaux. Even the most serious wine collectors will benefit from a one-day workshop through Lynch-Bages in which you are challenged to make your own personal Bordeaux blend.

Taking place over three nights and four days, this package is the perfect length of time to add to a few days in Paris, or a visit to the gastronomic hotspot, the Pays Basque Country (just south of Bordeaux). Furthermore, this package is sold as self-guided with the option to upgrade to include a private guide and driver for the duration of the trip. It can be booked whenever you'd liked (some restrictions apply).

Order by Dec. 1st and receive a complimentary case of wine-- one of Bordeaux's best kept secrets, this wine is produced by the family who makes Petrus! Just in time to pop under the tree.

Here's how you can order!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Le Pin, Pomerol: Here's to Advancement

Advancement is accomplished when we have outsmarted what appears to be our only two options: to turn backwards or to drudge along forward. 

The food world currently stands at this fork in the road, and we've been aware that we're twiddling our thumbs here for the last 15 years. 

Genetically modified foods, such as protein-enriched rice are actually combating levels of hunger and malnutrition; agricultural pesticides, aquifer tapping for watering, and chemical additives have reduced the potentials of crop failures that once impoverished entire communities; industrial machines and factories have mitigated the need for back-breaking, dangerous labour that once claimed so many lives. And yet how can we possibly be satisfied by the products that are the champions of such processes? What is satisfying about a twinkie? What is lovely about a Dorito?

Opponents of this system first turned to the good old days. We realized the importance of local production. We applauded heritage varieties, we started to taste the flavors of the lands around us and realized how much potential our own backyards had. We recognize value in a food product by its age old definition, the actual labor that went into crafting this product, and we can taste and smell this craftsmanship in products such as beers, artiginal cheeses, or local eggs. 

Le Pin  is the synthesis that has fully realized our historical moment: it has embraced the best of our advancement-- technical instruments, superbly designed facilities and architecture, and scientific research-- to create a product that requires the senses and memory to be appreciated, an outcome as varied as the seasons in which it was produced, a creation that is extremely personal and with a distinct personality. It would be an understatement to say Le Pin is special. 

The Pines of Le Pin seen from Le Pin's roof top terrace

I arrived to Le Pin bright an early for my scheduled visit, which I had made with the secretary. Expecting her to greet me, it was my surprise when a Range Rover pulled up and out stepped Jacques Thienpont himself. I must admit, I did feel quite starstruck. How lucky to get a visit to the property and happen to catch a glimpse of the owner and creator of one of the world's finest vineyards…. and then, oh how lovely to get a handshake as he approached me. 

Jacques Thienpont is jolly. He has the sort of face that would be easy to caricature: a linear, aquiline, distinguished nose, leading into a full, whole-hearted smile that raises his somewhat plump cheeks up until his eyes become just little crescents. 

Jacques Thienpont

"You must be Mary!," he greeted me shuffling through his car searching for something. "I can't seem to find my keys to show you in, so I'll have to pass by my cousin's place if you don't mind."

His cousin's place! This could only mean his cousin Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Chateau Certan. 
"Hop in," he gestured to the passenger seat. 

Barreling through the narrow, dirt roads separating the vineyards of Le Pin, he asked "Have you visited Certan?"

When I replied in the negative he quickly suggested in his jolly tone, "Well if you have the time, we might as well have a quick visit, that way you can see this property too. Why not?" 

Alexandre Thienpont answered the door to the Chateau just as any home owner would, and held the door open upon seeing the familiar face of a relative. Alexandre gives the impression of being reserved, gentle, serious, and timid, with smart eyes behind glasses that show humor and wittiness when they dart up to hold your gaze. 

He handed over the keys and in a soft voice said to me, "The keys to heaven."  

For Vieux Chateau Certain click here! 

And so began the visit to Le Pin.

Though it likely needs no introduction, Le Pin is one of the world's renown wines. With an average bottle price of €2,000 and an average production of only 400-600 cases per year, Le Pin is certainly hard to get a hold of. 

So what makes Le Pin exceptional?

Le Pin grapes the day before harvest, 2014

Thienpont says that 95% of making a good wine takes place outside. Located in Pomerol Le Pin is neighbor to Vieux Chateau Certan (in fact, at first the property was thought to become a part of the Certan), and the Moueix owned  Chateau Trotanoy.  From the small roof-top terrace of Le Pin one has a view on some pretty impressive neighbors, and of course, the two lone pine trees that symbolize the property. 

The soil is mostly clay with deep gravel and sandy soil and deposits of iron oxide. Vines are nearly 100% Merlot with an average age of 35 years. 

That said, the focus of our vineyard took place inside the small Chateau. The small but mighty winery was designed by Belgian architects, Robbrecht & Daem, and was recently completed in 2012. 

A model of the property

Above is pictured a model of the building. The small tower houses the secretary's office on the ground floor, and Jacques / Fiona's office on the first floor. Jacques is quick to share his love of art, design and architecture, and even while talking about wine, often illustrates his point with metaphors of art. The small room has commanding views of the vineyards stretching as far as Cheval Blanc, which can be enjoyed from some damn gorgeous leather and wood Scandanavian chairs and sofa. 

One of Jacques' favorite pieces of art that commemorates the property is this black and white photograph of one of the two famous pine trees. He explained that it was photographed on a day not unlike my visit: the sky was dark and overcast, but at one point this terrific, brilliant light shot through the grayness bringing out the textures of the tree.

One theme from Le Pin: maximum quality from minimum space. This room is no different. Behind folding doors, Jacques reveals a sink and storage area that can accommodate tastings and some preparations. Other panels can pop forward, revealing a television. 

The long segment of the building is the fermentation room and cellars. One enters this space from the covered out-door space between the two buildings. Here sit 7 stainless steel tanks, with coils inside (for controlling temperature) and double layers. Though each tank appears to be the same size, the inner layer varies from 15 to 40-something hectoliters to hold the wines from various plots of the vineyard. Jacques explained that this room, like all areas in Le Pin, were designed to maximize hygiene, a quality in wine production that is paramount for Fiona. Jacques says the fermentation should take place as quickly as possible, which at Le Pin is just two or three days. He explained that grapes are a natural fruit juice, just like leaving orange juice on the table for days on end, grape juice will develop unwanted flavors if the fermentation process takes too long. The temperature automatically increases during the fermentation and the vats ventilate the carbon dioxide, until there are just under two grams of sugars. Fermenation requires some air, the quantity of which varies from vintage to vintage. 

Le Pin's fermentation room


The space has the feeling of a gallery: with it's dark stone floors, and high ceilings, the room is airy and light. It feels new. Always excited to share a design feature, Jacques explained that the windows are positioned at the east and west corners of the building so that the room has two daily moments of direct sunlight and is always bright.

Jacques Thienpont points out the windows in the fermentation room

Going down the stairs to the cellar, another window is added just above ground level to let some natural light into the cellars. In Jacques' words "Just like New York!" 

The barrel room has that fresh, toasty smell of new oak. Here in 100% new french oak, the wine undergoes its malolactic fermentation, a practice which Jacques was one of the first to practice in the Right Bank. This room can be partitioned in two by sliding doors so that the temperatures can be controlled for two different vintages: the new vintage will need some heat during its second fermentation, while the last year's vintage must remain cool. Jacques noted the airiness even in this room: with the barrels close to the cool floors, the room has plenty of airspace to dissipate rising warmer temperatures. 

The cellars

When I visited in September, the day before the harvest, the room held two vintages: the 2012 had just been bottled; and the teeny-tiny 2013 filled just one tank (only 6 hectoliters, or about 800 bottles). The 2013 vintage has such low yields due to terrible storms that destroyed nearly 60% of the regions crops in the last weeks before harvest. 


Above is Jacques with his favorite wine bottle size: the double magnum! For wine bottles, bigger is in fact better, as the bigger the bottle the lower the surface area exposed to that tiny gap of air in proportion to the wine, and thus better aging potentials. Please take note readers who wanted to purchase me some Le Pin: I'd prefer a double magnum.

2012 Magnums

As one of the world's most expensive wines, it's no surprise that many fake bottles of Le Pin have been sold in the past. To counter this, Le Pin has always been a pioneer in using the latest technology to guarantee authenticity. Currently, it is the first vineyard to use Near Field Communication (NFC), a Belgium invention. Behind the label of each bottle of Le Pin is a small chip that can be scanned with your smart phone. The phone sends a unique code to Belgium where the code matches up on the computer. He explained that it's a bit like online banking devices (we in America don't have these, but my UK bank gave me a small device that looks like a calculator into which you insert your pin, which then generates a code that can be used for online access). Jacques' explained "what's dynamic can't be copied". 

Currently, Jacques is developing a new technology for the cork which would connect the cork's code to the bottle code, ensuring that a bottle has never been opened. 

The last room that we entered was his cellar. Wall to wall Le Pin of every vintage!

The wine cellar at Le Pin

Our 10am visit lasted until 1pm, at which point Jacques looked at his watch and asked what I would be doing for lunch. With generosity and kindness, he invited me to join himself and two remarkable young individuals who would be helping with the harvest (a young woman from Belgium, and a young man from the UK). "It's always lonely having to eat alone when you travel," he added.

I had arrived that morning already grateful to learn about one of the world's greatest wines, and I left brimming with appreciation. Jacques Thienpont's generosity, humility, intelligence, and passion had exceeded my expectations. He is an individual to be respected not just for his advancements in wine-making or his acute entrepreneurial skills (demonstrated by his purchase of Le Pin in 1979, and his recent purchase of L'If, as well as his negotiant company in Belgium), but he is a man of character. Humbly conversant in a range of topics from restaurants in Rome, to avant-garde art, to politics of poverty in he United States, his joy for life shone through. Clearly an advocate of lending a hand to youth, our lunch was a demonstration of the importance of "paying it forward," if you will. And he did.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jacques Thienpont for the visit, and to Master Sommelier Fiona Thienpont for organizing it. 

Upon leaving Jacques handed me a bottle with a wink and said, "Here, share this with your friends." I'll write to you after Christmas when I return to New York where I plan to share it with my best friend, Nina.   

Selfie with Jacques Thienpont

On the roof top of Le Pin with the pines themselves! Thank you Jacques!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thank you - a great research trip!

I feel blessed. 

Throughout, I have always been showered with love. Of course, it started with my parents, but it continued. I have met the kindest people who I have the pleasure to hold forever as my best friends. I have been loved by the most generous, biggest hearted, most intelligent, creative, excited, respectful men. And the older I get the more I feel gratitude for this. 

When I made the decision to leave Chicago now nearly four years ago, I had purchased my ticket, started to pack up five years of belongings and collections, and planed to quit my job. A huge weight had been lifted at that moment because I had chosen. I was no longer in the phase of indecision that torments so many new graduates. I had chosen to leave Chicago and move to Italy. And after having made my choice, I was able to breathe deeply and enjoy the city. Perhaps the last symphony I went to -- my favorite Chicago ritual-- was Mitsuko Uchida's 23rd Mozart Piano concerto. 

I sat in my favorite seats on the lower right balcony. Amy and Brian attended and during the pause gifted me with the complete Piano Concertos so that I could ask to have it signed and get to meet Uchida herself. During the second half of the performance, the 23rd concerto, I felt the confines of my body matter blur as my happiness seemed to shake out of me and melt into everything surrounding me-- it melted into the height of the concert hall, into the flute who beckons the piano to come, it exhaled from my lungs which had been filled with deep breaths of charged, clean air. I felt that life was great. So big. So special. And here I was-- just a little element in it, but a little element who is treated so unbelievably well in it. 

Today I feel the same.

I had a difficult week, the events of which had tested the limits of my patience, grace, and stress levels. To add insult to injury, I had missed a much coveted Chateau visit and was feeling like the world's biggest idiot. But throughout the week someone was always there to share with me the joys of life and to teach me another of life's wonders-- my traveling companion, Lola, with whom I shared many great conversations, laughs, hotel rooms, meals, and adventures in wine country; Carla, the owner of Chateau Lamothe who welcomed me and made me feel at home for nearly a week; the troupe of humorous and good-hearted English visitors who had just the right joke to keep me laughing until my abs were sore; the winemakers in the Languedoc who invited me into their vines and fermentation rooms to teach me and share with me; Veronique in Provence who hosted me, fed me, and taught me so much... life never smelt so good!; Sabine in Toulouse who rode me around the ancient quarters of the city from the wheelbarrow attached to the front of her bicycle; and most recently, Jacques Thienpont, who has gifted me his time during two informative visits through Le Pin and Vieux Chateau Certan, his conversation, and a lovely meal in the company of two spirited young friends, and cumulated this sense of wonder and gratitude that now so inspires me. 

These last two weeks have felt like a year. I have lots to share with you, and I will post individually on each of the vineyards, hotels and restaurants who are cultivating beauty. 

So, here's to life! Thank you! 

With gratitude,

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Château Haut-Brion & La Mission

Château Haut-Brion is austere. 

The more vineyards I visit the more I notice that each has such cohesion and symmetry down to the details seemingly most irrelevant to the taste of the wine. 

I wonder if you lined up Château employees (owners, ambassadors, tour guides), could a good sommelier-- rather than pinpointing the vintages of a wine-- determine at which vineyard each individual worked based only on the reflection of the wine in their style, or vice-versa? 

Certainly these details are not overlooked, and an institution such as Château Haut-Brion spares no expense to align all details such that they compliment with the elegance and austerity one observes in its wine. 

Haut-Brion is located in Pessac-Léognan appellation just on the border of the confines of the metropolis Bordeaux. In fact, the first time I visited the Château I was surprised by the fact that I had hardly left the city when the grand gates sprang up before me. 

A visit starts with a movie. The noble voice of owner H.R.H. Prince Robert of Luxembourg introduces the viewer to his vineyard, taking one through the history, winemaking process, and, most importantly, underscoring what makes Haut Brion and La Mission so unique. The oldest of the First Growths in Bordeaux, Château Haut-Brion is also the first to give the name of its chateau to its wine, thereby creating one of the first "brands", and underscoring, the now ubiquitous ideal of all well-made clarets, terroir: the idea that a wine should express its particular land, climate and people.

The Château has its own onsite cooperage, in which wood from carefully selected parcels of forest is brought in on site to be hand-worked into barrels specifically created for the wine. Each barrel is toasted to give off delightful aromas of baking spices, vanilla, and general coziness. 

The cooperage at Chateau Haut-Brion


In terms of style, La Mission and Haut-Brion are strikingly similar. If you had invited them to dinner, despite their different dresses, you could certainly tell that they are sisters from their elegance. These are truly elegant wines. I would invite both sisters to dinner often, as they are not over-stated, slightly reserved, and slowly and intriguingly revel their secrets with great pleasure and patience. 

We tasted Château Haut-Brion 2007, and La Mission 2007. Despite their relatively young age, tasting this vintage was a pleasure as both wines are showing such balanced freshness, structure, and character. La Mission offered a truly spectacular nose with fragrances picked up from the toasted barrels, fresh ripe dark fruits, and earthiness. Though it goes without saying for most readers, it is important to note that the two wines are both of the highest-quality. Haut-Brion may be older and more famous, but its sibling is no small fish. 

The year 2007 was a tricky one: by no means ideal with its humid winter and spring, this year required a good amount of labour to secure such a lovely result. The 2007 Haut-Brion opens up very slowly, so slowly you hardly notice it and then you are sipping away with pleasure. She does not tire you. Intriguing, the drinker is urged to take another sip. It's soft with very well-integrated tannins, creating a nice round mouth feel. It's not worth describing the specifics of flavors: I cannot remember the exact words she said to me, but I will never forget the overall effect of her presence. 

I'd gladly enjoy many more bottles of this.  

The tasting room of Chateau Haut-Brion

Comparing La Mission and Haut-Brion