Friday, December 27, 2013

Haphazard Wine Pairings #2: Champagne Edition

After singing the praises of Champagne as a food wine a few posts back, I figured I should put my money where my mouth is and put it to the test.  And plus, you know, it's the holidays. If ever you're going to have a bottle of Champagne lying around it's this time of year.

For this "haphazard wine pairing" I thought I would tackle ramen.  The obvious pairing choice, and the one that I imagine will be hard to beat, is beer.  There really is nothing better than a piping hot bowl of ramen and with a good pilsener or lager.  Beer does a perfect job of complementing the deeply savory, earthy and complex flavors of ramen without overwhelming the delicate subtle harmony of it.  There's also the salt issue. I generally make the soy sauce based shoyu style broth, and with this salty broth, the thirst quenching quality of beer is hard to beat. But this isn't "a blog about beer and music," after all...

With all this in mind, I decided Champagne might be a good choice.  It has bubbles like beer, it can have yeasty flavors like beer, and it can have savory umami type flavors which might nicely complement the savoriness of the soup.  I'm definitely not the first person to come up with pairing Champagne with Japanese food, but I've never heard of anyone drinking it with Ramen, specifically.

Here's the wine I chose:

Jose Michel et Fils NV Champagne Brut Tradition

I had never had a predominantly Pinot Meunier based champagne, but I had read that Pinot Meunier imparts fruity flavors in a wine as well as some earthy components.  With that in mind, I figured it might be a particularly food-friendly choice.  Meunier based champagnes can also be great values which is important because even the most affordable Champagnes cost more than I can generally spend on a bottle of wine.  At $35 this wine is expensive but a steal for good Champagne.

I've been trying to perfect my ramen for a while now.  I don't stress too much about authenticity, and I've accepted that it will never taste like it does from a good ramen shop. Instead, I just try to make a noodle soup using the basic techniques and ingredients of ramen that is similarly delicious and complex.  It takes a lot of time, but it is not particularly difficult and very rewarding.

I start by making a Dashi:

I soak kombu (a type of seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried and shaved bonito)  in water for a few hours, then simmer the mixture for a few more hours, strain out the resulting broth and put it aside.

Meanwhile, I made the pork stock in a separate pot:

I simmered a piece of slab bacon in a pot of water with some green onions and crushed ginger at a very low temperature for a very long time (I think as a general rule, every element of making ramen making should take an absurd amount of time).  Remove the pork, ginger and onions and put aside.

To make the broth, I mixed these two stocks along with some lamb stock I had made and frozen after another meal a few weeks before, seasoned with soy sauce and a dash of mirin and sesame oil.

For the toppings I used spinach, snow peas, thin slices of the pork from the broth, radish sprouts and a soft boiled egg.  After making the broth the only cooking I did was frying slices of pork in a pan, parboiling the peas and spinach, and soft-boiling the egg.

When you're ready to assemble, get each of the broths piping hot and combine them in the bowl, add the cooked noodles and then arrange the toppings on top.  Here's the result:

The soup turned out well and the wine was great, but sadly the pairing left something to be desired.  There was nothing horrendous about it but the the wine failed to elevate the flavors of the meal and vice-versa. Instead they awkwardly spoke over each other, with the substantial acidity of the wine obliterating the complexity of the broth, and the rich flavors of the soup overshadowing the focused and surprisingly subtle and mineral flavors of the wine. The pairing worked best with the bites of pork, where the obvious, fatty bacon flavors found a counterpoint in the focused lean quality of the wine. But, on the whole, the pairing was nothing more than two delicious things next to each other on a table. And the saddest part of all this is that I'm not totally sure why it didn't work or what would have been a better option.  I suspect that this is why wine generally isn't paired with ramen.  But I'm not giving up quite yet, I think sherry might be the answer...

I finished the wine the next day and I don't think I've ever had an experience where a wine changed so dramatically one day after opening.  On the first day the wine was mineral-y, lean and austere without much in the way of fruit at all, and on the second it was ripe and fruity and full of vibrant strawberry and apricot aromas while retaining a savory mineral core.  I couldn't help but wonder if the ramen pairing would have worked better with the wine open a day beforehand, but, oh well.  Instead I decided to try it with a makeshift carbonara using the leftover pork.

I cooked the bacon slowly at a low temp melting as much of the fat as I could (I know it's heresy to use bacon instead of guanciale in a carbonara but I didn't have any guanciale lying around and, you know, I'm a rebel), added the cooked spaghetti along with some of the cooking water, added a ton of cracked pepper some parmesan cheese, and the egg.  I mixed it all together over extremely low heat, adding more of the pasta water and cheese until it reached the right level of creaminess.

I have to say the Champagne actually paired really well with this dish. Who knew? I think the main merit of this pairing is that the simplicity of flavor in the carbonara allowed the wine to take center stage, which was so open and expressive on day 2.  And the fruitiness and acidity of the wine provided a nice contrast to the fatty richness of the carbonara, all with this umami sort of thing going on with the yeasty elements of the wine and the parmesan and bacon.

To be honest I'm a little perplexed that the carbonara pairing worked so much better than the ramen. The two dishes are both noodle based, and actually have somewhat similar flavor profiles.  I wonder if it has to do with how differently the wine was showing on day 2, or if soups require different considerations, or if it's just that simpler foods make simpler pairings.

Anyway, for something different this holiday season, when the clock strikes midnight, make sure to have a nice plate of carbonara to accompany your champagne toast.

And if you're going to try and tackle some ramen make sure you have some entertainment.  I recommend "7 Days of Funk" the new collaboration between Dam Funk and Snoop Dogg who is now calling himself "Snoopzilla."

Dam Funk's singing is unquestionably mediocre but I've always found its mediocrity kind of charming. Let's just say his singing and songwriting always played second fiddle to his production. But with this effort Dam Funk does what he does so well on the production side, and lets "Snoopzilla" take care of what Dam Funk doesn't do so well. The result is funky. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beyonce Rant

On January 12th Beyonce Knowles released an unannounced “visual album” with 17 songs and 17 accompanying videos called “BEYONCE”.  It was released as an iTunes exclusive and was only made available to other retailers on Dec. 18th.  It costs $15.99 and sold over 800,000 copies in its first weekend.  Pretty wild stuff.

Here’s what we already know about Beyonce: her music will have high production value, she’s magnetic, she’s extremely attractive, she’s a great dancer, and she can sing.  In all these respects she’s exceptional, and if this were the debut album of a new artist I would definitely take notice.  But Beyonce is someone I also believe has been behind really great, innovative music, bucking trends and going her own way.  In this respect—musically—I see this album as a step backwards. 

I imagine a meeting in a boardroom at Sony Music Entertainment’s headquarters between a top record executive and a producer coming up with the direction for the album.  Let’s call the exec Fred and the producer Bob.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Fred: Gee whiz this video album is going to be expensive!  Not only will we have to pay for musicians, studio time, and songwriting teams, but also for 17 different video shoots with crews, actors, and a ton of different hot shot directors, not to mention the army of lawyers we’ll need to hire to keep the whole thing a secret and make sure the album isn’t pirated once we do release it.  Somehow we need to guarantee that we will sell enough records to recoup all these expenses…

Bob: How are we going to do that??

Fred: We’ll just take every musical and cultural phenomenon of the past 3 years and copy them.  That way the record is sure to be a hit!

Bob: Brilliant!

Fred: Who’s popular these days…?  Lady Gaga’s popular right?  All that macabre, highly sexualized stuff is brilliant!  Wish we’d though of that.  Oh well, we’ll just do it anyway.  We’ll make a video set in a spooky hotel with lots of deformed people, and people wearing crazy clothes licking each other and humping and whatnot. We’ll call it “Haunted!”

Bob: Perfect!  We’ll put it all over a sort of brooding euro-techno thing, I hear the kids these days love EDM…

Fred: “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” were obviously monster hits.  How do we replicate that?

Bob: We’ll write a highly sexualized bubbly retro-electro-disco sorta thing.  Should take about five minutes to write the lyrics and then we’ll get Pharell Williams to help us out with the track.  We’ll call it “Blow.”  But do you know what the biggest trend these days is?  The newest fad all the kids are crazy about?

Fred: What?

Bob: Civil unrest!  It’s happening in the Ukraine.  It’s happening in Syria.  It’s happening all over!  Remember all those kids who put up tents in Zucotti Park a couple years back?  What was that called?  Oh yeah, Occupy Wall Street!  Imagine if all those kids protesting all over the world bought a digital download of Beyonce’s new album, we’d recoup those expenses in no time!

Fred: Perfect!  We’ll make the video for “Superpower” about a futuristic/post-apocalyptic protest!  But, of course Beyonce will still be half-naked and making out with dudes and stuff.  Remember, everything has to be highly sexualized.  Ever since Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s that’s what everybody’s doing.  Over the top in your face sexuality is really in right now!

I could go on:

The first verse in “Ghost” has the same recitative multi tracked rapping thing that Kendrick Lamar does. 

Beyonce’s sing song rapping on “Drunk in Love” sounds weirdly like Drake.

The pseudo-carribean first verse of “Yonce” sounds a lot like Rihanna, and has the same Elvis lip motif that Rihanna uses in her video for “Rude Boy.” 

“Partition” and “Jealous” have a recent Kanye minimalist industrial kind of texture, and “Jealous” even has a yelping vocal sample that sounds so strikingly similar to the one in Kanye’s “Mercy,” that I suspect it may even be the same sample.

“Rocket” sounds exactly like D’angelo’s “How does it feel.” 

“Flawless” has "trap" style production a-la Three Six Mafia, or 2 Chainz. 

Despite all this, the record seems to be getting a ton of critical acclaim.  Am I crazy?  Is anyone else noticing these similarities?  Does anyone else care?

Let me clarify for a second, I don’t think the record is all bad.  There are a few tracks towards the end I really like.  While I suspect “Blow” will be the first single, I think “XO” is a much better candidate, or if that's too much of a ballad "Drunk in Love" could work too.  All the ballads are pretty good, “Flawless,” and “Superpower,” are both cool and “Grown Woman” is my personal favorite track on the album (although it’s partly because of the awesome bass playing in the end part).  While there are a few gems, I just find it shocking how obviously derivative most of these tracks are.  I used to think of Beyonce as a tastemaker and an innovator, so to see her bow so easily to current and most likely passing trends is disheartening. 

I understand the argument that the work is about the cumulative effect of all the songs and videos together, and that the “video album” concept is ambitious and of our time, but to me neither the videos nor the music have the content to back up the concept.  There isn’t really a narrative thread that goes through the music or the videos that makes it feel like anything more than just 17 songs with 17 ok videos (except maybe you could argue there's a feminist slant to most of the songs, and there's a recurring trophy image in a few of the videos).  And as far as music video multi media innovation goes, I think this project pales in comparison to the incredibly simple, clever and powerful video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that came out a few weeks ago (  It’s pretty amazing that Bob Dylan after a 50+ year career is still one of the most innovative and vital artists out there.  And it’s actually kinda sad that a 72 year old man does zeitgeist better than any member of my generation I can think of. 

We all love Beyonce, and maybe for most people her raw talent and magnetism is worth the price of admission.  I get that.  But I always liked Beyonce because in addition to having raw talent and magnetism she put out fun pop music that was innovative and of high quality.  She always masterfully towed the line between entertainer and artist, and now with “BEYONCE” I see her solidly planted in the entertainment camp. 

Anyway, I guess my final word is that instead of buying “BEYONCE”, you should spend your $15.99 on a bottle of Muscadet or a 375 ml bottle of Valdespino's "Inocente" sherry and drink it while watching “Like a Rolling Stone” 17 times in a row.  Now that’s a high quality way to spend an evening.   

Monday, December 9, 2013


This weekend I went to the first of two “holiday Champagne tastings” at Chambers Street.  This one focused on wines made from white grapes, and next week’s will focus on red grapes.  I don’t keep my cards very close to my chest when talking about Chambers Street Wines.  I love the place, and their tastings are a big part of the reason why. 

Champagne is a region I would like to learn more about.  The wines fascinate me but they are out of my price range for everyday drinking.  As a result I have very limited tasting experience.  So I jumped at the chance to try six back-to-back champagnes which, curated by Chambers Street, were bound to be incredible.  Sure enough, they were, and between tasting the wines and talking to the Champagne buyer Sophie, I came out feeling like I had a much better understanding of what the wines of Champagne are all about. 

Here are the wines from the tasting:

  1. Jacques Lassaigne NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs Vignes de Montgeux, $47.99
  2. Diebolt Vallois NV Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Cramant, $44.99
  3. Agrapart et Fils NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs "7 Crus," $51.99
  4. Laherte 2007 Champagne Extra Brut Les Empreintes $74.99
  5. Piollot NV Extra Brut Polisot Pinot Blanc $61.99
  6. Doquet 2002 Champagne Grand Cru Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs $82.99

(I’m pretty sure that was the order.  4 and 5 might be switched though)

These tastings move pretty quickly and it can be difficult to get a good impression of any one single wine.  But I find them more valuable for getting a general sense of a region or a style or a vineyard or a vintage or something like that.  This tasting got me thinking a lot about…well, champagne.
The first three wines struck me as being similar.  They all had a purity and focus to them, showing more lean fruit and minerality than any of the secondary, oxidative, nutty type flavors you can find in Champagne (guess that’s probably an age thing).  I appreciate this style of wine for its terroir-expressiveness.  You can really taste that these are wines made from Chardonnay, they all had that great, cutting cool climate acidity, and they all had pronounced mineral components.  A couple of these wines struck me as being Chablis-like, which I guess makes sense given the proximity of the two regions.

The two wines that I found most memorable, however, were the Laherte and the Doquet.  For my palate, these wines were also the two richest and broadest of the six wines.  The Laherte had an incredibly fascinating funky nose and was rich and creamy on the palate but with great lively acidity.  And the Doquet felt grand and decadent with a warm savory, yeasty sort of profile.  This is what I imagine great, classic champagne tasting like when I read about it. 

I only have one gripe about these wines and it’s an obvious one: prices.  By Champagne standards these prices are actually great for such high quality wines, and I’ve read in a few places recently about how Champagne is actually a great value in the high-end wine market.  But this is precisely why the wines of Champagne have been relegated to the role of special occasion wine.  

If it were up to me, champagne would be an every day wine.  Very few wines have the versatility that Champagne does—It’s incredibly delicious on it’s own, great as an aperitif with light fare, and I also think it serves a great place on the table. There are so many times I’ve cooked a meal, struggled to find the right wine and then realized that Champagne would have been the perfect pairing.  But why can’t anyone make a bottle of Champagne for less than $30?

I understand that these wines come from some of the most amazing and also difficult terroir in the world and that some of them are aged upon release and that their prices reflect these factors.  So here’s my question: is the price difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines justified?  I think it is, but more so at the higher end.  From my experience at this tasting, I realized if I had the money I would spend it on the Doquet or the Laherte before I would spend it on the more affordable NV wines.  I found they offered something in terms of complexity and intrigue that I haven’t found in sparkling wines from other parts of the world.  

I really loved the first three younger NV wines, the Lassaigne in particular, and in some contexts, with an oyster for example, I would rather drink the Lassaigne than the Doquet or the Laherte. And as I mentioned before, I really admire their purity and faithful expression of terroir, but I couldn’t help but wonder: is a faithful expression of Champagne terroir that much more valuable than a faithful expression of Jura terroir? Or the Loire? Or Savoie? Or Alsace? Or Burgundy? All of which are places you can find great wine makers making delicious, well made, and pure sparkling wines for around $20.  I suppose it’s a bit of a silly argument when all these wines are unique and beautiful in their own ways, and in a perfect world I would just drink them all but when you’re on a budget you have to make silly arguments with yourself in justifying where to spend your hard-earned dollars…

Anyway, this Champagne stuff is fascinating.  I know that a rapid-fire wine tasting is far from ideal way to evaluate a wine.  I would love to buy each of these bottles, and a number of other Champagnes for that matter, and drink them slowly, each one over an evening, or a meal, or a few days and get to know each wine a little better. But if I did that, I would slowly go broke and end up destitute on the street drinking a bottle of Doquet out of a paper bag. Which is why I’m so thankful for Chambers Street for putting on these great tastings where I can try these wines for free.  Thank you Chambers Street.  

And in case you live a slightly more modest lifestyle than Ricky Rose, I highly recommend this wine:

Domaine de Montbourgeau NV Cremant du Jura Brut

Had this wine at thanksgiving with raw oysters and was blown away.  Very lively on the palate, great champagne-like flavor profile.  Pretty serious wine for $21.99.  

Also, I would love to make posters of rappers holding bottles of geeky grower champagnes.  

Anyone good with Photoshop?