Sunday, 6 October 2013

Alsace Society Chapter 3 - Annual GEWURZTRAMINER Meeting at Bar-Roque Grill, 7 September 2013

After a summer hiatus, we reconvened the Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society at Bar-Roque Grill for its Third Chapter, which I titled the AGM (Annual GEWURZTRAMINER Meeting), an Alsatian feast featuring six of the best Gewurztraminers from Alsace.  And for my friends at the Registry of Societies, no we are only an informal grouping of wine and food lovers and are not officially registered, so I will not be lodging any minutes or accounts anytime soon.  I can, however, share with you this wonderful photo of a whole roasted foie gras d' Alsace, served with roasted quetsch plums marinated in Chinese five-spice, courtesy of our favourite Alsatian chef Stéphane Istel:


The rest of the AGM, of course, was no less spectacular...

I get to Bar-Roque just before 10.30 am to help distribute the printed menus and wine information. Stéphane and his team are already busy at work, but so much more work has already gone into making sure this lunch goes without a hitch.  His choucroute (sauerkraut to the non-Francophiles) takes a few days to prepare and properly ferment, and as he has proposed pork eight ways to really make it a "royale" choucroute, the finicky butchering, sousing, brining, pre-prep of discrete items probably started well before that, in between running a restaurant that opens six days a week, for two services a day.  Thank God he actually enjoys what he does.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees me coming in and apologises "My hands are full of pork!".  Looking around his benchtop, he's almost literally waist-deep in it.

Pork, pork and more pork for the choucroute royale!
To my chagrin, Kori and the front-of-house team have already set the tables and placings.  It takes me a while to slip a menu under each starter plate and readjust the disturbed utensils so that they are all perfectly aligned and equidistant from the plate, as well as from each other.  My Les Amis training serves me well; although I don't have the measuring tape to ensure perfection to the millimetre, it looks good enough to the naked eye.

While I am tinkering with place settings, various suppliers walk in and out with deliveries of fresh produce. Stéphane greets them with a bright "Hey, how are you?" before taking large wooden crates of god-knows-what and setting it aside with his all-embracing acclamation: "Amazing!".  Not all of it is meant for the lunch; actually, I'm pretty sure none of it is.  But to see Stéphane talking to his team about the produce and explaining what they are and what they are for, I start to miss the quiet industry and camaraderie of a professional restaurant team.

Girolle Delivery, with a free maitake mushroom sampler (can you spot it?)
Kori pulls me aside.  She thinks we should put start chilling the first wines for the early guests.  I agree.  We retreat to the compact fridge by the open kitchen and dredge out our starting flight, a 2011 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer and a 2011 Maison Trimbach Gewurztraminer.  Gewurztraminer as a rule is rather high in residual sugar, so I selected these two dry gewurzes to ensure our guests'  palates weren't dulled with sweetness early on in the piece.  Kori and I stash the eight bottles into a beautiful Pol Roger bucket and fill it to the brim with ice cubes.  Another box ticked.

The opening wine flight, with Chef Stéphane working away in the background
The first guests arrive.  I look at my watch.  It is only 11.30 am.  Bollocks.  Before long, everyone is here, and they seem to be thirsty.  Thinking on our feet, we convert the first course into a stand-up canapé session.

Appetisers / Canapés: Tarte Flambée Classic (Bacon and Onion) and Sneaky (with Snails)
Wine Pairing: 2011 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer and 2011 Maison Trimbach Gewurztraminer


Kori and Kat start distributing these flat little morsels of goodness to the crowd.  They are hot, creamy and salty, but also crispy and light, the perfect combination to whet guests' appetites.  The wines go down well.  The Zind-Humbrecht smells of exotica but is far more restrained on the palate than its nose would suggest.  The Trimbach is a good food wine, not particularly characterful or assertive, and cut more in the mould of gentle spice and light fruit than anything flamboyant.  After a successful initial watering and feeding, the crowd take their seats, and we start in earnest!

Second Entrée: Whole-Roasted Foie Gras d' Alsace, Roasted Quetsch Plums marinated in Chinese Five-Spice Powder
Wine Pairings: 2009 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Cuvée Laurence and 2010 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum


I snap this picture while the foie was under the heat lamps, and doesn't the light and shadow just set off that beautiful caramelisation on the outside of the livers?  The fresh whole foie gras, from Edouard Artzner, is sliced and presented on wooden platters for the guests to help themselves, family-style.  The quetsches (a variety of plum very popular in Alsace, brought in specially for this lunch) were de-stoned, sliced, and marinated in five-spice powder before being given some time in the rotisserie.  As an added touch, a bowl of fresh quetsches is placed on each table so that the guests can handle and taste the fresh plums for themselves.

Weinbach gewurztraminers are always vinified with a riper, more exotic style in mind.  As Catherine Faller explained to me when we visited her at the Domaine, gewurztraminer berries are smaller than other grapes, so the ratio of tannin to flesh / juice is generally greater.  For that reason, Weinbach prefers to harvest its Gewurz riper and with higher sugar content to balance out any potential bitterness from the tannins.  I think the Laurence is extremely approachable at the moment, with its superb rose-petal nose and fruity sweetness pairing very well with the foie gras.  However, the Furstentum, normally one of my favourite wines, is rather muted and didn't seem to want to play with my fat liver-y friend.  It was pleasant, but for me, did not show the same typically gewurz characters as did the Laurence.  Oddly, it also leaves less of a sweet impression that did the Laurence, although that may well have been due to its higher acidity.  Looking back at it, I would have aired it for at least an hour before pouring; popping-and-pouring a young grand cru never allows it to show at its best.

Un Trou Alsacien - Lime Sorbet, doused with 1990 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Marc de Gewurztraminer

I had originally asked Stéphane to serve his choucroute first and foie gras as the final savoury course, as is common in Alsace.  Being responsible for the wines, I had another reason: I wanted to serve the wines in order of escalating sweetness, and choucroute does not generally match well with off-dry wines.  Stéphane's reply was curt: "After my choucroute, no one will be able to eat anything!"  So we added a little palate cleanser to ensure the residual sweetness of the Weinbach Gewurzes did not overwhelm the choucroute and the rather drier wine that I had chosen to pair with it.

I find the sorbet rather too rich and sweet to properly cleanse the palate, but the marc blows our heads off.  At 120 proof, it is, for want of a better word, moonshine.  23 years in the bottle had done nothing to soothe its fiery breath.  If Olivier Humbrecht is the best white winemaker in the world, and he very well might be, I'm not entirely sure he's quite in the same league with his distillation yet. 

Main Course: Choucroute Royale, with Spanish Suckling Pig Done Eight Ways
Wine Pairing: 2007 Maison Trimbach Gewurztraminer Cuvée de Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre


This choucroute comes with suckling pig done eight ways: as deep-fried head cheese (fromage de t
ête), pork belly, three types of sausage, rib rack, brined trotter and shoulder.  This is, for me, the paradigm of Stéphane's cooking.  Apart from being a traditional dish from his home region, the sheer amount of technique and detail that goes into creating the individual components of this dish are amazing.  As is the sheer amount of food; no one will ever be able to fault Stéphane for leaving them hungry at the end of a meal at Bar-Roque.  Despite our best efforts, we are unable to finish the massive platters of pork and cabbage.  

The 2007 Trimbach Gewurz Cuvée Seigneurs is, for me, the wine of the day.  Spicy and minerally, it is restrained and sophisticated, but nevertheless a very powerful wine.  With only 15 grams of residual sugar, it is just sweet enough to offset the sourness of the choucroute, but there is a depth of flavour that easily holds its own against the salty, smoky meats.  Delicious.

Dessert Wine: 2002 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Goldert Vendanges Tardives

This awe-inspiring sticky is one of my favourite wines of all time, Alsacien or otherwise.  When I told Olivier Humbrecht that I really enjoyed his 2002 late-harvests, he almost made a face: "You must like your wines really ripe and sweet then".  But as we warmed up during the tasting, he acknowledged that 2002 was that ideal vintage for late harvests, allowing the wines to obtain extreme sugar and phenolic ripeness while also having a lively streak of acidity.  It is worth noting that this wine also wowed the critics, scoring 96 points from Wine Spectator and 19/20 from Jancis Robinson.

I last tasted this wine in 2010, and it was a pudding unto itself; sweet and exotic with honey and guava, but was balanced so exquisitely with racy acid that it did not clobber you over the head with sweetness.  On the evidence of this bottle, it seems to have settled down into a more mature phase now, with more sugar integration and a gentler tartness.  Which I think is a shame; I love the exciting duelling between sweetness and acidity that you find in top young Alsace late-harvests.  The Goldert is still a magnificent wine in its middle-age, but on the evidence of this bottle, it also definitely a less exuberant wine than it previously was.  I think it has plateau'd and would suggest drinking this up within the next 3-5 years.

As would be done in Alsace, we eschew the trend for pairing desserts with dessert wines, and allow the guests to enjoy the wine and conversation by itself, before proceeding onto our final course of the day.

Dessert: "Mom's Recipe" Tarte aux Mirabelles

A variation on the menu staple "Mom's Recipe" Apple Tart, Stéphane shipped in a crate of Alsatian mirabelle plums specially for today.  And it is a magnificent dessert.  A light crust with pastry cream (I thought it might have been frangipane but it seems too light and wobbly to have ground almonds in it) studded liberally with golden mirabelles, yielding their flavour secrets under gentle persuasion from the heat of the oven.  Fabulous; I ask for seconds, but there are none to be had.

Digestif: Cherry-Infused Kirsch, and more Marc de Gewurz

As the early leavers bid their farewells, Stéphane brings out one of his housemade infusions, a jar of kirsch (cherry brandy) in which new season's cherries are infusing.  Stéphane gleefully ladles the kirsch into little balloons, and we are soon recounting tales of travel and wine over glasses of this magnificently fruity and surprisingly mellow tipple.  A  brilliant way to conclude what has been a wonderful afternoon.

Conclusion

With some 30 guests attending, we had the largest attendance to date for an Alsace Society Chapter.  Which is perhaps not surprising; for four generous courses of delectable traditional Alsatian food, tea / coffee and six splendid Gewurztraminers (and one spirited Gewurztraminer distillate), the bill per head came up to only S$120 nett (around US$95, inclusive of taxes and service).

It was good, at long last, to return our focus to Alsace gastronomy, as opposed to an exclusive spotlight on the wines.  A lot of the Alsace wine marketing effort in recent years has focused on how well they pair with Asian food. And while there are few food pairings more divine than an Alsace Riesling with sashimi, there is an incomparable ease with which the pure whites of Alsace pair with their own native cuisine.

And we are not stopping here.  Our next Chapter, a lunch on Saturday, 11 January 2014, will mark the return of Etienne Hugel, who launched the Society back in January and has been a wonderful supporter and inspiration of ours since Day One.  Etienne, winemaker, marketing director and genius raconteur, proposes a tasting of his wonderful Rieslings from the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, and other top Hugel wines matched with a whole new menu at Bar-Roque Grill.  Places will be limited to 45 pax, so please drop me a line at julianswriting@gmail.com if you would like to be part of our first event for 2014.

Special thanks to our kind supporters, Vinicole Asia (distributors of Maison Trimbach) and Wein & Vin (distributors of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht), for helping to make the AGM happen.

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