Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Blue Batak Sumatra

Name: Blue Batak Sumatra
Origin: Lintong, Sumatra
Roaster: Irving Farm
Roast: (unknown)
Varietal: Catimor; Java; Jember
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Ever since coffee was first brought from the Horn of Africa to Indonesia in the late 1600s the Batak people have been growing it in the Lintong region of Sumatra, around Lake Toba. The high elevation, hearty rainfall, and volcanic soil make for superb conditions to grow the crop.

The coffee in Lintong, as in most of Indonesia, is wet hulled, also known as semi-dried or, in Indonesian, giling basah ("wet grinding"). This means that for a little while the seeds are partially dried while still in their parchment before finishing drying outdoors with the parchment removed. That initial step allows all of the sugars, alcohols, and other compounds of the fruit to be absorbed into the bean itself, creating a sweet and immensely flavorful coffee. During this process the beans turn from a light green to a darker, bluish green, ergo "Blue Batak".

Of course, the beans are not blue once they have been roasted - they are quite as brown as roasted beans should be. They brew into a busy brown; dark and complicated, but not opaque or self-absorbed. The aroma has notes of fruit and herbs everywhere. It is somewhat light in impact, but still absolutely chock-full of flavors. It is not tannic or acidic; the word "vegetal" comes to mind.

The palate offers earthy notes at first, but only at first. The acidity is a non-factor, moderate at most. As the coffee cools, the acidity remains low, but the flavors turn into fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices, and to say that they are many and varied is a gross understatement. There are notes of green pepper, red pepper, and bay leaf, along with peripheral notes of smoke, florals, black pepper, and walnut. Irving Farm is also right on the money with the tasting notes that they have printed on the bag: "Heavy, oregano, green tomato" - that is, assuming that the first comment refers to the gargantuan complexity, the absolute mélange of flavors with which the coffee is dripping (literally, I suppose), and not to the texture, which is medium bodied. It is just substantial enough to carry all of the flavors, but nothing further; the body does not even try to interfere with its own effect on the tasting notes, as even knowing where to begin would be a Herculean task for it in this case.

So, there is certainly an epic smorgasbord embodied in the terroir here, but whence the terroir? Am I on an Indonesian plantation or in a Mediterranean garden? And either way, may I please stay a while longer?

Often, when I am done reviewing a coffee, wine, or tea, even if I liked it, I move on. "Time for what's next," I think to myself. But not this time. I may not quite have a handle on where, exactly, in the world I am, but that will not stop me from hanging around. I am off to have another cup of Blue Batak Sumatra, and my kind readers ought to have one as well. Enjoy.

Monday, February 18, 2013

2009 Veuve Aubert Ainé Chablis

Producer: Veuve Aubert Ainé 
Varietal: Chardonnay 
Region: Chablis A.O.C., Burgundy, France 
Vintage: 2009 
Tasted: February 8, 2013 
ABV: 12.5%

The name "Burgundy" literally implies red wine, in that a shade of the color red is named after it.

There are many people who would argue against that little statement there. (Alright, the gig is up, I am one such person myself.) Some might argue that it is pointless to pursue such a linkage outside of any context. Others might point out that the color is only eponymous in the English language. (Interestingly, in Italian, the same hue is called bordeaux.) Still others might remind us that the region of Burgundy produces an extraordinary amount of white wine to similar standards and renown as its red wines.

Notice that the only rebuttal to refer to the facts of the region, the latter, is the most concrete and substantial of the three. The truth is, not only is the Burgundian white wine sector producing quality spirits at bountiful levels, but it has been doing so for many centuries to great acclaim, and is just as integral a part of Burgundian wine history as red wine production.

Chablis is farther north than any other French wine region except Alsace and Champagne - in fact, it is closer to Champagne than to its nearest sister region within larger Burgundy. Nevertheless, it is a part of the Burgundian tradition. Like the larger region, Chablis makes both red and white wines; and like the larger region, it almost exclusively uses Pinot Noir for the former and Chardonnay for the latter.

Burgundy, including Chablis, has been home to wine production since the time of the Romans. As in much of France, and indeed Europe, Burgundy saw her vineyards tended primarily by monasteries during the Middle Ages. The Cistercians first brought Chardonnay to Burgundy in the 1100s, when they planted it in the vineyards surrounding Pontigny Abbey in the Chablis area. By the mid-1400s, Chablis was being imported as far away as England, Flanders, and Picardy - no mean benchmark in a time when transporting wine was cumbersome, risky, and expensive - but the most important patronage came from Paris. Chablis's proximity to the capital gave it a vital advantage over other wine regions in the bid to slake the wealthy and noble - and royal - thirsts.

For the next five hundred years, though, the fortunes of history were reversed. In 1568 the Huguenots destroyed the area, so thoroughly decimating both the land and the winemaking houses that Chablis never really resumed its oenological traditions until the mid-1700s. Then, just as production seemed to approach pre-Huguenot levels, the region (indeed, France generally) was struck successively by the Little Ice Age, the French Revolution, the Jacobin Terrors, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, foreign invasion (most notably by the Prussians), the twin natural disasters of oidium and phylloxera, and finally World War One. Against all odds, the region emerged from all of that miserable misfortune producing such high-quality wine that, when the authorities granted Chablis appellation d'origine contrôlée status for its Chardonnays in 1938, one of the main reasons given was that too many other white wines from all over the world (including many non-Chardonnays) were fraudulently labeling themselves "Chablis" so as to command a high market value.

Then, the very next year, World War Two began.

Thankfully, that was the last catastrophe to befall the region, ending half a millennium of trial and tribulation. Chablis emerged as strong as ever, and a global Chardonnay fad in the 1960s helped to give the region a chance to grow. Wineries were founded, land was planted (or re-planted), innovations in grape growing and winemaking were tested, and, even after the wine craze moved on to another grape, Chablis had successfully shown the world the persistence of the quality and distinction that stand behind her AOC designation. And she continues to thrive.

So, what is all of this hoopla about, anyway? The 2009 Chablis by the négociant Veuve Aubert Ainé offers some pretty good clues. The wine is a crisp, pale straw color. The aroma is also crisp, and comprised of a veritable bouquet of autumnal produce: golden apple, citrus around the edges, honey, white table grapes, even marzipan. An absolute medley of fresh sweetness. The palate is no less a cornucopia of delights: honeycrisp apple, tropical citrus, nectarine, and quince. Mild florals balance things out, and there is a finish of nectarine and citrus. The wine is smooth, even. The bite - there is alcohol in this beverage - appears in both the front and back of the mouth, but is mild, and appropriate. The wine as a whole, though clearly strong, is rather mellow in personality. The strength is almost latent. Imagine a classic beach bum: muscular, maybe even chiseled as though out of stone, but someone who would never even think about beating people up; just hanging out, relaxing, looking good. That is how this Chablis comes off: it is muscular, and powerful, and yet it would never imagine smacking around anyone's palate. It just wants to chill out with us and have some fun.

After twenty minutes, the wine has a new aroma, equally well endowed but slightly adjusted in character. The particulars have more to do with summer than with fall now. A whiff of white peach comes first, then citrus - smooth citrus - and then apples and pears. It is as pungent as ever. The palate, however, is no different in detail than before, nor in nature. Even smoother than before, the Chablis offers the same tasting notes of honeycrisp, tropical citrus, nectarine, quince, and mild florals. Even the finish is the same. The body has filled out, though, and is even more muscular, though equally relaxed and mellow in personality. Imagine that our beach bum has spent those twenty minutes tossing around some iron, and now he has returned to the beach, barely even aware of his bulging biceps, ready to chill.

This is a wine that has flavors to meld perfectly into any summer setting; body to hold its own against any autumnal evening; and a flowing, easy-going nature that is quite ideal to pair with just about any preparation of seafood at any time of the year. Is it any wonder, then, that come hell or high-water - or a combination of perpetual civil war, foreign invasion, global climate change, fungus, and pestilence, all within a century - the tide has hardly receded before all of planet earth is clamoring for some more Chablis? We can be grateful that no matter what the millennia may bring, there is always a monk or oenologist around to help fill the demand. Go get some today, and enjoy.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Scottish Breakfast Tea

Name: Scottish Breakfast Tea 
Type: Black Tea 
Ingredients: Assam; Ceylon; Kenya 
Purveyor: Clipper Ship Tea Company 
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 3:00 (as recommended), sipped plain

Those who have never visited the village of Northport, NY, really ought to go explore there. The quaint diversions, placid atmosphere, and coastal scenery are just what the doctor ordered on those weekends when a getaway is vital to one's mental health. And, for those who live on Long Island or in the boroughs, traveling there and back is quick and easy - Long Islanders should have no trouble making a fulfilling one-day sojourn.

While browsing the shops and boutiques around Main Street, be sure to stop by the Clipper Ship Tea Co. It boasts both an extensive selection and a friendly staff that likes nothing better than to talk tea and educate its customers.

Clipper Ship's black tea blends include, generally, some combination of Darjeeling, Keemun, Kenya, Ceylon, and Assam teas. In the case of the Scottish Breakfast blend the latter three are used, all with similar-looking leaves, like little twigs, or tightly wrung bits of cloth. Most are dark brown, like dark chocolate, but there are some tan ones here and there. The dry leaves have a strong nose of vanilla - very strong, almost astringent even. There are also notes of toffee and a vague hint of citrus.

When the tea brews, it looks like someone took toffee and caramel and mixed them together into a rich, textured liquid. The aroma is of sweet tannins, with a little briskness and a modicum of citrus. It is a rich aroma, but not overwhelming, or even pungent - just a different kind of rich. Maybe "solid" is a good word. The flavor is a perky kind of brisk, and lush with a lemon zest, inhabiting a medium-full body. The tea is not acidic, but the tannins are quite present, and make it taste like tea really ought to taste - the same notes that, in coffee, wine, and other beverages make us think of tea, are front and center here. Meanwhile, the citrus tones keep it light and spright, and the sweetness pulls it all together.

The Scottish Breakfast tea is excellent as a morning pick-me-up, quite as the name implies. Also though, for those who do not mind caffeine in the late afternoon, this would work great as a tea-time tea. The notes are ideal as a carry-over between lunch and dinner, just what the palate requires.