Task Essential

AUTHOR : KIM AKHTAR

Classical Food & Wine:

I have always been a history buff.

Packed off to boarding school in England at the age of 7, my saving grace growing up were my history classes that started with Egyptian pharaohs and moved through classical Greece and Rome. Interestingly, my teacher, Kenneth Woodall, was a bit of a gourmand, and I remember quite a few of the classes focusing on the food and wine of the ancient world.

I clearly recall the story of a baker in A.D. 79 in Pompeii who had placed a few loaves of bread in his oven. While baking, Mount Vesuvius erupted, raining down ash and stone that would extinguish life from the town, but enshrine its final moments for us to discover thousands of years later. When he showed us photographs of the carbonized loaves from the oven that were discovered during an excavation, with their shape and texture intact, my jaw literally dropped. This was like a portal into the past.

Decades later, when I began to study wine seriously, it was the potency of its history that attracted me…perhaps far more than the wine itself. And as luck would have it, studying wine in Beaune, the very heart of Burgundy, I was surrounded by the stories of monks and cardinals and chevaliers and kings and their favourite wines.

A few years ago, whilst expanding my wine knowledge beyond France, I ended up quite taken by the wines of Campania, the Southern Italian region that encompasses the ruins of Pompeii and Paestum, the sybaritic Amalfi Coast’s towns of Positano and Ravello, Mt. Vesuvius, Capri, and the fascinating city of Naples.

Around the same time, someone presented me with a copy of a first century Roman cookbook called Apicius.

“Let’s try making some of these recipes,” I suggested to a good friend of mine.

“Are you mad?” she replied. “You want to make 2000 year-old recipes?”

“Why not?” I replied.

“But what about the ingredients? They probably don’t exist.”

“We’ll improvise,” I shrugged.

So we invited a few friends and threw a dinner party. On the menu were mussels, sea bream, duck in a red wine sauce, turnips, homemade bread and olive oil for dunking, and for dessert we made a cheesecake of goat cheese and figs, which the book said was used during a sacrificial ceremony….!

For wine, we tried to find wines that were made as close to Pompeii as possible. Back when Pompeii was thriving, the Pompeiians produced a red wine that was exported in abundance, but there wasn’t much information we were able to dig up on that.

So we focused on Campanian wines that are all made from unique, local varietals: the most prevalent reds are Aglianico , Piedirosso, Pallagrello Nero and Casavecchia. The dominant whites are Coda di Volpe, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina, all blended in Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ), the region’s evocatively named and well-known wine.

The pairing of the food with these wines was outstanding, suggesting the very close relationship between the two starting thousands of years ago.

The dinner party was quite the success…for many reasons: it was truly different. It was a pairing of food and wine in modern times to what the Pompeiians would have done a couple of millennia ago as they reclined in their dining chairs and feasted, the same way we did, except of course we all sat upright at a table.

But much like the Romans, our tastes are still linked with what we see and hear around us: a memorable dinner is made up of food, wine…and the people we are with and finally the ambiance. To the Romans, eating and drinking was a celebration of life. In fact, the Latin word for dinner party is “convivium…” or living together. And with death being the inevitable outcome of life, they seized every day and enjoyed it.

We ought to take a page out of their book. Carpe Diem and mean it.

 

AUTHOR : KIM AKHTAR

Château de Bois-Brinçon, Loire Valley, France

Many years ago, driving through the Loire Valley, I was astonished at how many gorgeous buildings seem to appear out of nowhere…the Cathédrale de Chartres was one such building that suddenly appeared as I rounded a bend, towering regally above the tall field of wheat. Another such building appeared on the right bank of the Maine River flowing through the town of Angers as I drove slowly, one eye on a map and the other on careening scooters, trying to find my hotel.

I stopped and got out, staring up in awe at the ecclesiastical grandeur of the Hôpital Saint Jean d’Angers, inside which was the Hôtel-Dieu d’Angers, the town’s infirmary founded in the year 1153 by Etienne de Marsay, Henry II’s treasurer. Henry Plantagenêt, then King of England and Duke of Anjou, commissioned the hospital as atonement for his murder of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.

What does this have to do with wine, you may ask?

Well, where medieval healers were concerned, wine was always present. Wine was used for medicinal purposes, which is why so many vineyards were planted around the various Hôtels-Dieu around France during the Middle Ages.

As such, a few years after the Hôpital Saint Jean d’Angers was built and functioning, the monks who ran it established vineyards on the left bank of the Loire and that was the beginning of the Château de Bois-Brinçon in a hamlet known as Blaison-Saint-Sulpice.

The year was 1219, making the vineyard one of the oldest in the Loire Valley if not the oldest.

Six centuries later, as the power of the Church and aristocracy declined, and after the French Revolution of 1789, the property was sold off to the bourgeoisie and came into the hands of the Cailleau Family in which it remains today.

Xavier Cailleau is the current owner and winemaker who took over from his father in 1991.

“At the beginning, it was a real challenge to return to winemaking and the desire to make wines with a terroir identity,” Xavier acknowledges. “It was a steady evolution, first to organics, then biodynamics. And the vines responded and the grapes began to offer the true face of the soil.”

The wines of Bois-Brinçon are vinified by terroir. “The Anjou region is a mosaic of very varied and rich terroirs,” Xavier explains. “Being at the junction of the Armorican Massif and the Paris Basin, the Bois-Brinçon vineyards offer a rare diversity of soils and landscapes spread over six communes and eight different terroirs.”

Intervention in the cellar is minimal. “We accompany the wines without useless and traumatic interventions,” Xavier says, “like a parent who sees his children grow up and accompanies them so they take the right path.”

I first tasted the wines of Bois-Brinçon at a small bistro not far from Domaine, but I wasn’t a “wine person” back then…just a tourist but they stayed with me.

Five years ago, at a Christmas lunch with two other sommeliers, one of whom brought a bottle of “Les Saules de Montbenault,” one of their cuvées, I was blown away: the chenin blanc was laser sharp and sang from whence it came. And the red…the cabernet franc could not have come from anywhere, but this particular corner of Anjou.

 

AUTHOR : KIM AKHTAR

It’s all about the German Umlaut:

For a very long time, for me it was all about French wine.

Even when I went to Napa, at the Auberge du Soleil, I ignored the sommelier’s recommendation of Dunn Howell Mountain and ordered Cathiard’s Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru “Aux Murgers,” much to his consternation and visible shock. I know what he was thinking…why would you go all the way to Napa and drink Burgundy? And he was right.

But, France was my comfort zone.

A decade or so later when I decided to plunge into the professional world of wine, I discovered Germany.

I had been hired to write a wine list focused on the cool climate region and whilst familiar with it, my experience was vastly academic. I needed to learn the language of Rieslings and you can’t do that from just reading about the wines, you have to taste them and create your own verbiage because as a winemaker once told me: “taste and smell have no real written language, you cannot learn them from a book. They are wholly personal.”

So, I began buying Rieslings…from the Rheingau, from the Mosel, from the Rheinhessen and sat down at my dining table and began teaching myself about the varietal, its history and the terroir. And the more I tasted, the more I fell in love with Riesling. The day I tasted a 20 year-old bottle, I was shocked at how beautifully the wine had aged.

My sommelier friends, people in the industry all loved talking about German wines, “from the staggeringly steep terraces of the Mosel river valley to the gently undulating limestone hills of the Rheinhessen, Germany is blessed with an incredible diversity of terroirs that we can explore through the prism of deliciousness known as Riesling,” said a sommelier who owns a wine bar in downtown New York City. Well…alright.

But my friends, wine lovers, not pros were not so keen: it appeared that umlauts scared them. For whatever reason, bottles with labels bearing those dots, floating above terms like spätlese or grapes called spätburgunder or müller-thurgau or places named Würzburg or Württemberg, were just not sexy.

Perhaps even more than umlauts, German Riesling had a reputation for sweetness, which scared them even more.

With the zeal of a convert, I decided to try changing a few minds. I invited the critics to dinner, setting out bottles of different styles of Riesling, from different regions and asking them to taste.

And one by one they fell, enthralled by the wines of Franzen, Knebel, Haidle and Dreissigacker, producers, who over the past 5 to 10 years have broken from the traditional low-alcohol sweeter wines of their fathers to focus on dry wines, also moving to organic and biodynamic practices. In fact, this dry style is not new. “This is the real old style, going back 80 – 100 years, before the war,” said a German winemaker friend. “Then it was dry. The style only became sweet after the war.”

The following are the bottles that changed many minds:

Weingut Franzen Quarzit-Scheifer Riesling Trocken 2018

This wine comes from the side sections of the Bremmer Calmont and also some parcels across the Mosel near the monastery ruin, Abtei Kloster Stuben. It was fermented and aged in steel for 8 months. It’s a snappy, crunchy, dry riesling, showing black currants, grapefruit and herbs.

Weingut Knebel Röttgen Riesling Kabinett 2017

Röttgen, a Devonian slate site with loess and quartzite. It’s one of the steepest sites along the river, just downstream from the village. Here, to mitigate against climate change, Matthias has moved from pole trellising to horizontal wire trellises up the hill which allows for wind movement and for the lower rows to shade the grapes on the upper rows to prevent sun burnt grapes. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in stainless steel.

Weingut Karl Haidle Pulvermächer Riesling Grosses Gewachs 2017

Pulvermächer is easily among the most revered and oldest planted vineyards in the Württemberg region. Mortiz claims that Haidle’s Pulvermächer vines are some of the oldest riesling vines in Stetten, “at least 50-years-old;” the clonal selection is unknown, if they are even clones at all. The soil here is “Kieselsandstein,” a mixture of pebbles, sandstone with quartz binded with silicic acid. Haidle farms this Grand Cru site organically, just like all the other sites. In a similar tradition to the Erste Lage Riesling, this wine is fermented with native yeasts in large neutral Stückfass, and then aged an additional 10-12 months resulting in a monumental Grosses Gewächs, and a great dry Riesling, year after year.

Weingut Dreissigacker Kirschpiel Riesling Grosse Lage 2015

This site is a sheltered, amphitheater-shaped vineyard with vines facing east and southeast toward the Rhein. The subsoil is pure limestone overlain by clay and marl, laced with bits of limestone. The profile of Kirchspiel is linear and focused with pure stone fruit and bergamot expressions. Whereas the smoky Geyersberg is starchy and fleshy, the Kirchspiel is crunchy and salty with tremendous length.

 

 

AUTHOR : KIM AKHTAR                                       CHÂTEAU MUSAR: SINGULAR & SPECIAL

The wines of Château Musar are very special to me for several reasons:

Firstly, being Lebanese, I am very proud of this wine, a Middle Eastern wine made in a region that has been producing wine since classical times, one that has become the obsession of sommeliers and professionals around the globe, people whose eyes light up when you mention the wine, happy to wax poetic about the wine and why it’s so special.

Secondly, Musar and the Hochars are family. Growing up, there was always a bottle of Musar on the dining table, especially at dinner or Sunday lunch. Additionally, my uncle, the then Lebanese ambassador to the UK, served the wine with great pride at every cocktail and dinner party at the embassy or the residence, telling everyone who would listen about this great Lebanese wine made by his even greater friend, Serge.

And Serge Hochar was indeed great. When he passed away in a tragic swimming accident six years ago, the wine world lost a dynamic, passionate man who brought Musar out of the shadows of the Bekaa Valley and into the conscience of wine professionals in the west, but the family lost a father, a husband, an uncle…a man who loved life and his wine.

I was born in Beirut shortly before the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975. My immediate family stayed on, but by 1982, the situation in Beirut had become ridiculously dangerous and as the bombs dropped and snipers manned the rooftops, I was sent off to boarding school in England. Around the same time, Serge sent his wife and sons to Europe…but he stayed. He was not going to abandon the winery in Ghazir, 25 miles up the coast from Beirut, nor his vineyards in the Bekaa that was by now swarming with Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians.

As his neighbourhood was razed to the ground, Serge sat quietly in an armchair and drank an entire bottle of Musar. “Everytime a bomb hit, I would take a sip,” I heard him say. “Needless to say, I drank the whole bottle pretty quickly!”

Musar made wine every year of the war (1975-1990), missing only one vintage. Those picking the grapes did so at night as rockets and bombs lit up the sky and the trucks carrying grapes took hours to make the short trip from the vineyards to the winery, the truck drivers risking their lives trying to evade the battlegrounds the various factions had carved out in Beirut and its environs.

The wines of Château Musar may not appeal to everyone: made from a combination of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault, the wines tell stories, they are “living beings” that corral the energy of an entire season in a place that was Serge’s home, and whilst he would never admit it, his spirit and personality.

AUTHOR : KIM AKHTAR

About fifteen years ago, my life in New York as I knew it, ended. I had been the chief of staff to Dan Rather at CBS News and I assumed, incorrectly, that it would be easy to find myself another job. It wasn’t.

Disheartened, I decided to go back to Paris, where I grew up, in the hopes that perhaps I could reinvent myself there.

Once I settled back into the Parisian lifestyle, my now aged uncle suggested that perhaps I study wine.

I’d always been around wine. It was a constant presence at lunches, dinners and copious amounts of it were drunk at Sunday lunch, which in my house, was a command performance for the entire family.

My aunt would spend Sunday mornings in the kitchen, usually yelling at the maid, twirling her wooden spoon like a weapon; and my poor uncle would hide downstairs in his cellar to keep out of her way. Mainly, though, he loved to walk up and down the old stone floors, looking at every bottle, doing a mental inventory of everything he had, whilst quietly indulging in a glass or two before lunch. “I had to taste the wine before serving it,” he would always say.

A big fan of Bordeaux, he’d been buying wine since the late ‘40s and as such, had some of the best vintages the region offered from the years after the Second World War and through the 70’s.

I still remember the lunch when I was allowed to have my first sip of wine. I don’t remember much apart from the sensation of red velvet going down my throat. Years later, when I understood and cared a bit more about wine, my uncle told that it was a 1959 Mouton Rothschild.

I took my uncle’s suggestion, but, much to his chagrin, decided to go to Burgundy. I signed up at the CFPPA, the main wine and agricultural institute in Beaune and found myself a small apartment.

Besides academia, my first practical assignment was at Domaine Leflaive. Before starting, I thought I would go over and walk around, take it all in, as it were.

There is a small restaurant on the property that offers flights of wines and I decided to treat myself. Sitting alone, I sipped the wines taking copious notes on my impressions.

Just then, the door opened and a woman walked in. She was dressed in a barbour jacket, muddy wellingtons, but had a gorgeous coral and white silk Hermes scarf billowing around her neck. She stopped in the bar area. “Bonjour,” she said to the staff.

She was the kind of woman whose presence was so magnetic that you couldn’t help but stare. My eyes widened as she walked over to me after one of the sommeliers whispered something in her ear, inclining his head towards the corner where I sat.

I immediately got to my feet, but she indicated I sit.

“Alors?” she said standing next to my table, her arms crossed. “What do you think of the wines?”

“Well…” I stuttered. “They’re…good, I mean, excellent.

“The nose on this Meursault…and the aromas of…” I continued falling all over myself.

I was in mid-sentence when she put her hand up, telling me to be quiet.

“I…”

“Mademoiselle,” she interrupted. “Please don’t analyze the wines. Just tell me if you liked them or not.”

“Yes, Madame,” I muttered.

“You enjoyed them?”

“Of course!” I said enthusiastically.

“Then,” she smiled, her face relaxing, her arms at her side, “I am glad. If you enjoyed the wines, then I have done my job.”

I sighed with relief as she turned dramatically on her heel and walked away.

Half way across, she stopped. “By the way, I’m your new boss…Anne-Claude Leflaive.”

And that was the first time I met one of the most influential women in the winemaking world. I went on to work at Leflaive for several months, learning so much from all of them, never forgetting that ultimately, wine is meant to be enjoyed, not dissected.