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Le Gouleyant – Cahors Malbec at the Blue Moon in Exeter

October 30, 2010

Pam and have just found our new favorite restaurant where we can go for a quiet dinner after I get home from work!

For several years Pam’s been part of the yoga community centered out of the Blue Moon Cafe and Market, in Exeter, NH. Kathy Gallant and her family have been operating the establishment since 1995 and have built a community of folks who appreciate wholesome, locally grown organic food and related merchandise that they’ve turned into great meals in the cafe and for take-out. The Blue Moon yoga studio upstairs, headed up by Julie Roost and focused on the theory and practice of classic yoga, has also attracted a wonderfully diverse group of locals who share their passion for the contemplative arts together. Recently, however, in a bid to re-focus and get the energy to keep the community together, Kathy changed directions and opened a full service restaurant that maintains the original philosophy but really steps up the menu, with the expert assistance of chef Matt Grecco, service, and ambiance into a first-rate operation ready to compete with all the wonderful restaurants in the seacoast region. Check out Seacoast Online for a great review of the restaurant.

Anyway, I met Pam after work last Tuesday for dinner and I’m afraid our monthly entertainment bill just went up. We had a delicious dinner that incorporated lots of locally grown organic produce as well as the best available seafood – a few meat dishes are also available although the vegetarian will find the largest selection.

After a beautifully put-together salad, I had a main course that included wild Alaskan salmon lightly grilled in a flavorful seasoning. Just perfect. Pam’s main course was a feta stuffed tortelacci covered with a tasty fennel sauce; I can still taste the flavors. We finished the meal by splitting a to-die-for pumpkin panna cotta with a pumpkin cookie on the side – lightly seasoned with a hint of sweet.

The surprise of the evening, however, was the wine. While the wine list is fairly basic and reasonably priced, it’s clear that Kathy’s daughter, Alissa, who took on the task of putting the list together seriously, did so with care. There’s no Turning Leaf on this list! While I’ve tried and enjoyed a number of the wines on the list, the one that immediately caught my attention was the Le Gouleyant, a Malbec (well, 80% anyway, the rest is Merlot) from Cahors.

First, a word about Cahors, a small wine region (appellation) in the southwest of France next door to it’s more famous neighbor, Bordeaux. They’ve been growing grapes and making wines in Cahors for 2,000 years so the vignerons know something of their craft. For many years however, the winegrowers of Cahors focused on growing the highest quantity of grapes possible on the river floodplain while ignoring the nearby hills where wine growing got it’s start in the region (farming on the valley floor was originally limited to food crops, of course). Fortunately, in the mid 80s the locals began to find themselves shut out of the wider French market as wine quality improved throughout the country. By the early nineties, a new generation of winemakers began to take over their family farms and set about to re-create the Malbec wines of the past by planting new vineyards on the hillsides, dramatically reducing yields and focusing on organic growing methods – and then applying modern methods to their winemaking. The result is truly astonishing as the simple and austere wines of their fathers have given way to world-class wines with the concentration and complexity expected of a competitive wine.

The only problem with Cahors Malbec wines is their rarity. I’ve been reading about these wines for years (even read a book about the winemakers of Cahors last year) and until this week, I’d never tasted one. So there was no question that we would try the Le Gouleyant, a wine made by Georges Vigouroux, one of Cahors leading winemakers.

Now, the interesting thing here is that since Cahors is not well known in this country, the region’s wines are a true bargain. What few Malbecs from region you can find will set you back as little as $10, although of course that doesn’t include the restaurant markup which can run between 200-300%, depending on the restaurant. So all that said, what was the wine like?

In two words, I was simply amazed. The Argentinians have set a high bar for Malbec, so that’s what I have to compare the Le Gouleyant to. The good news is that Cahors is back. The wine was dense, complex and full of fruit with cherries, blackberries and raspberries in abundance. The wine we were drinking was likely a 2008 (we were drinking by the glass – it was mid-week after all), so it showed it’s youth but this is a wine that is balanced and it has just the right amounts of tannins to see it through another 10 years, no problem.

And best of all, the New Hampshire State Liquor Store has it available for $179.00 per case.

In Venge Veritas

October 17, 2010

I mentioned in an earlier post my trip with oldest daughter Kate to northern California three years ago in order to attend the wedding of Kate’s college roommate, Elieza. After the wedding, Kate and I left Santa Cruz and drove north to Napa Valley and spent two days touring the valley and visiting lots of vineyards. The highlight of the trip to Napa was our discovery of Venge Vineyards, a small producer of world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wines.

We finished our first day of touring at Rutherford Hill Vineyards, a well known vineyard just up the road from Auberge du Soleil. Auberge du Soleil is a wonderful four star restaurant and part of the Relais et Chateaux chain, where we had dinner reservations (another story). While at Rutherford Hill, we got to talking with the salesman in the wine tasting room – it was the end of the day and the crowds had left – and after agreeing to purchase several wines, including the first true Port style wine I’ve ever even considered acquiring from some place other than the Douro Valley in Portugal, the salesman told us about Kirk Venge and Venge Vineyards up the road a ways on the Silverado Trail, and how his wife had just started working in the Venge tasting room with some incredible wines. He ended up calling his wife, Lin Forino (Venge’s Hospitality Manager), on her cell phone and made us an appointment for 10:30 the next morning.

We arrived at Venge the next morning, “modestly” hung-over after an incredible evening at Auberge du Soleil and wishing for another 2 or 3 hours sleep. It was a beautiful morning and the parking lot was empty with the exception of the family dog, who met us enthusiastically. Lin met us at the door and, noticing our condition, immediately offered us some fresh coffee and a plate of local cheese and fruit. I was sold on the place before we even got to the wine.

Lin explained the history of the Venge family and Kirk’s father who has been making wine in the valley for more than four decades; he’s currently the proprietor of Saddleback Vineyards, a small winery a short drive away. Then she brought out the wines.

After trying a number of different cuvees, our favorite turned out to be the 2005 Gladys’ Vineyards Syrah; a deeply concentrated mouthful of pepper, fruit and berries that reminded me a lot of the best of Gigondas (one of the southern Rhone’s most powerful village co-operative wines and, like most Rhones, typically a mix of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault), only better. We got to try the 2005 Family Reserve Cab but it was clearly out of our price range at that point so we passed on acquiring any.

Once we finished our tasting and made arrangements to have a case of the Syrah shipped to New Hampshire, we were fortunate to have Kirk Venge, the tour de force wine maker responsible for everything we were falling in love with, walk into the tasting room and introduce himself to us. Kirk was kind enough to offer us a tour of the winery. I should note that the winery has since moved to a new location several miles away and I haven’t had a chance to see it yet but what I saw of the original winery was impressive enough.

Kirk uses traditional methods, lots of french oak and organically grown grapes – along with modern equipment – to produce world-class age-worthy red wines that I’m slowly filling my cellar with. I’ve had a chance to taste several vintages of a number of Kurt’s wines including the Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Scout’s Honor Zin, several vintages of two different Syrahs, Gladys’ and Muhlner Steps, and two other wines including a delicious white called Champs des Fleurs. I can’t wait to receive my first bottle of Silencieux, a new Cabernet that will be released from the new winery for the first time this week.

Kirk’s wines are well recognized. For example, his 2007 Family Reserve was awarded 98 points by Robert Parker – a classic rating – and while I no longer pay much attention to wine ratings, preferring instead to make my own selections, I have to agree that this wine deserves very point it received.

Kate and I left Venge feeling like we found our own personal wine-maker. We’ve since gotten to know all the staff at the vineyard and routinely buy their wines on release. Now Napa is a long way from New Hampshire but Lin and Kirk treat us like next door neighbors and Kate shares in my passion for the Venges and their wine. As a matter of fact, I had them ship a bottles of the Gladys to her in Alaska this week as a special gift.

Napa Cabernet and Columbus Day Weekend

October 10, 2010
Three wonderful cabs

Our daughter, Kate, returned home to New Hampshire this weekend from her own home outside of Anchorage, Alaska for the first time in 3 years and needless to say its a cause for celebration. Both my daughters, Kate and Amelia, have been on the west coast for the past few years – although Amelia recently graduated from UW graduate school and found job nearby in Massachusetts – so it’s been wonderful having them here together, even if it’s only for a few days.

Kate and I attended her college roommate’s wedding together in Santa Cruz three summers ago and while we were there, we took the opportunity to tour Napa Valley together for a couple of days, visiting and sipping our way through about 20 vineyards and wineries. Two that we visited were Silverado Vineyards – one of Napa’s leading producers of premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines – and a smaller, less well known winery nearby, the William Hill Estate Winery, on Atlas Peak Road, just off the Silverado Trail.

I had known about and had opportunities to try wines from both wineries over the years and come to enjoy them both. In particular, I cellared a case of 1991 Silverado Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (still have a couple of bottles left down there and they’ve aged perfectly). My brother, who’s wine cellar is limited to few bottles he’s collected over the years, has likely the last bottle to be found of William Hill 1982 Cabernet; a cabernet for the ages that was, I believe, William Hill’s first ever release of the wine.

I spent the last a couple of days on the Cape with by brother, Bruce, visiting my mom who lives in a nursing home there, and enjoying my brother’s company. Bruce originally acquired his 1982 William Hill from Bruce Gibson, the proprietor of Harwich Spirits Shoppe in Harwichport and the two Bruces have been close friends ever since. As a matter of fact, my brother had recently heard from the shop that there were located 10 cases of 2005 William Hill and on the odd chance that Bruce (my brother) wanted any, we should stop by and taste it. So we did just that and bought a the bottle that was opened for us to try – I’ll buy some more on my next visit to the cape but didn’t have time to do so yesterday.

We bought wines from both wineries while we were there and had them shipped back to us in NH. I found the 2005 William Hill Cabernet to be totally closed in and didn’t buy any; boy was that a mistake. I did purhase a couple of other wines there, however – another story. At Silverado, I signed up for their newsletter and managed to get an annual allocation of some of their better wine – I think I have about 4 cases of their wine in the cellar right now.

So back to our daughter’s visit. Last night, Amelia prepared a wonderful roasted Chicken and Rosemary dinner while got to wander around the cellar for awhile. We ended up with two Silverados (2002 Limited and 2007 Mt George) along with the open bottle of William Hill 2005.

Now it goes without saying that all three bottles were fine examples of well crafted Napa Cabernet. The 2002 Silverado Limited is coming into its own and showed tons of fruit with nice structure and enough silky tannins to indicate that there’s lots of years left in the wine. The William Hill was a baby, however. Although the bottle had been open 24 hours previously and clearly was fully aerated, and although it too is nicely balanced with a mouthfuls of black cherries and currants, the wine needs at least 5 more years before it will come into its own without requiring 24 hours of airing out before serving.

The surprise of the evening was the Silverado 2007 Mt. George. While it too was young and in need of additional aging, the wine had a level of complexity rarely found in reasonably priced wine. As this wine gets older, my guess is that it will become something special.

So there you have it; my whole family together, great wine and an entire evening to enjoy. We finished up with the last glass of wine, enjoying Bach Cello concertos. What an evening.

Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren Maine

September 16, 2010

We drove east today from our lovely cottage on Quahog Bay all the way to Ellsworth on Penobscot Bay. The day started out like a picture postcard, with sunrise across the bay, not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect day to drive down the coast, sightseeing, shopping and visiting some of our favorite places on the coast.

On the way home, I called Allie Smith at Oyster River Winegrowers, in Warren to ask we we could stop in. Allie suggested that stop in at their new tasting room in Thomaston, about 3 miles from their vineyard (the corner of Route 1 and rt. 131) so we made our way to Thomaston. We found Brian outside with a couple of guys working on some new trellises for recently planted vines in an “ornamental garden” that Brian intends to use to enhance the tasting room’s appeal. The location itself is what looks to be a 100 year old building that originally served as the central facility for a group of small camps. Anyway, the setup appears to be perfect for it’s new use.

Brian asked us to join him in the tasting room and we got a chance to try all his current 2009 offerings, including his village white, village red, merlot, Petit Syrah and a dry Rose. We left with two cases; a case of the Petit Syrah and 1/2 case each of the Merlot and the Village White.

The Village White was more subdued than the 2008. Still lots of fruit (a heritage of Seyval Blanc from upstate NY, Chardonney from Long Island and a couple of others I couldn’t pin down) . What the white lacks in fruity intensity, however, it makes up in complexity and balance.

The Merlot is likewise fruit forward but round and well balanced with the right levels of tannins. It should drink well for several years. I stopped by too early for Merlot last year so it was new to me but it’s a great effort.

The Petit Syrah continue’s to amaze me. Last year’s was a powerful, concentrated wine with an amazing level of in your face fruit, an admittedly high alcohol content – 15% – and real structure. I’ve still got about a case in the cellar and it’s going to be fun to watch the 2008 age.

The 2009 has the same powerful nose and fruity concentration but it’s clearly more subdued with both a lower alcohol content – 14.5% – and more balance. Brian admitted he likes the 2008 better but I’m not so sure. We’ll give them both some more time in the cellar and do a comparison.

I remain convinced that Brian is an incredibly talented winemaker who will likely produce the first breakout wines in northern New England. He’s brought an enormous amount of knowledge with him from Napa Valley and even though his vines need at least one more year to produce any fruit (and likely two years to produce commercial quantities) he’s sourcing grapes from upstate NY, the north fork on Long Island and from some of his old employers in Napa. Clearly his winemaking skills are being put to good use and I can’t wait to see what he does with his own grapes.

Quahog Bay

September 5, 2010

After a wonderful sail from the Basin on the New Meadows River south of Bath, to Quohog Bay, we began our two week vacation on the coast of Maine with a feast of marinated steak tips, another salad mostly from our garden, and a bottle of La Fleur de Petrus, 1995; the “second” wine from Petrus. Wouldn’t you know it, though, this wine is second to none.

I opened the bottle about an hour before dinner just in case. I’ve had one bottle after the wine was about 1o years old and was so wound up we ended up drinking it the following evening so I suspected that this wine might need to age a little more. It seems that an hour and 1/2 was just about right because by the main course it was showing all it’s potential. The tannins seem to have rounded out but are a log way from disappearing. The fruit (mostly blackberries and cherries, but it could have been the food interfering) was right there with you and then the subtle additions that a great Bordeaux offers came on into the meal. By the time Andy and I finished the last 1/2 glass each, it was clear this wine has it all and at 10% of the price of a Petrus.

Oh, by the way, the Basin, for anyone who sails “down east” is one of the most beautiful and pristine harbors on the coast, typically offering up perfect anchoring conditions on a sandy bottom within 100 fee to the shore in 30 feet of water. An evening there, with the Osprey diving all around you, is as close to heaven as I’ve found myself.

Quohog Bay, located a little west of the Basin, is home to Dodge Morgan, one of our country’s legendary sailor-writers who’s known for his solo voyage around the world and for authoring “The Voyage of American Promise”, a wonderful yarn, while he made the trip. As I write this, I can peer across the bay at his schooner at anchor off of Swan Island, his home port, in the middle of the bay.

UPDATE: (10/4/2010) Dodge Morgan died of complications from Cancer at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston at the age of 78 while we were vacationing on Quahog Bay. He’ll be missed……

Local Wines – Sweet Baby Vineyard’s Kensington White

September 4, 2010

I’m amazed that there are small vineyards and wineries sprouting up all round me, along the coast of New Hampshire and down east into coastal Maine. Some are beginning to make names for themselves regionally (Flagg Hill in Lee and Jewell Town in South Hampton, for example) while others are hidden gems that few are yet aware of (Brian and Allie Smith at Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren Me, my favorite winemakers in New England, fall into this category) outside of their local market. Sweet Baby Vineyard is more representative of the latter.

I first discovered their wines at the weekly Saturday morning farmer’s market in Portsmouth this summer. Lewis Eaton, the winemaker, was attending his small inauspicious booth, displaying several of his fruit based wines (strawberry, peach, etc.) and I stopped by to say hi. I asked him about his wines and gave him an opportunity to pitch me. I’m not really a fan of fruit wines – I find them generally one dimensional and lacking balance – but he had some nice things to say about his Kensington White so I purchased a bottle for $10.00 and took it home for dinner that evening.

We ate outside on our screened porch overlooking our gardens and meadows on an evening at the height of the summer. Pam made a lovely salad for dinner, most of it from our garden or from the day’s purchases at the farmer’s market. The wine needed to be chilled and, just in case I stuck a bottle of NZ sauvignon blank in fridge.

We opened the bottle, poured out a little and took a whiff. Amazing…….. All I could smell was a floral bouquet. So into the mouth and an explosion of fruit. Although slightly sweet for my palate, and certainly lacking the acidity and complexity of that NZ sauvignon blanc, it was wonderful. I can’t tell you what grapes are in it; if I had to guess it’s a meritage of chardonney, and seyval blank but I’m going to ask Lewis and I’ll update this once I know.

We enjoyed the whole bottle that evening and ended up staying outside till the sun went away around 8:30, watching the birds in the meadow and the bees on the menarda next to the porch.

The next time I saw Lewis at the farmer’s market, I bought a case.

Check out Sweet Baby Vinyard when you have a chance and are in seacoast NH.

Real Wine for Real People

August 29, 2010
Chateau Trotanoy 1999

So, I’ve been buying more wine than I could safely drink since 1982 when I bought of Chateau Trotanoy 1978 (an awesome Pomerol) on sale for $70- a case – at a New Hampshire liquor store in Woodsville, NH. Who knew it would be the beginning of a lifetime passion.

Actually, my discovery of good wine took place 13 years earlier, in November of 1969, during a weekend visit to Montreal to see my good friend Derek Jessop, a freshman at McGill. It was a cold, rainy night when Derek picked me up at the bus station and on the way to his one room apartment off-campus in the McGill ghetto, we stopped at a deli to pick up dinner – bread, cheese and wine. That night Derek introduced me to all things french; Camembert, Brie, baguettes, and of course, French wine. To go along with the food, Derek bought two bottles; Chateau Neuf du Pape and Chateau La Garde. While I don’t remember much about them, I do remember that I was blown away by them and resolved to never buy a bottle wine again without having at least a modest idea about what I was going to buy and consider drinking.

Anyway, my love of wine goes back a long time.

I began adding to my cellar in ernest in 1986 when my family moved into a wonderful old farmhouse in Harvard, Massachusetts. The 270 year old home had this wonderful hand dug cellar, lined with granite, that seemed to maintain the same 65 degree temperature year-round. By then I already had a hundred bottles to store – mostly wine from upstate NY, but that’s another story – so it didn’t take me long to figure out how to rack the wine (I bought 13 large clay chimney liners and built a 5 story pyramid) and my cellar was born.