Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Alsatian Wines & Pheasant at Craigie On Main

Due to a late change of plans, I was able to attend a Wines of Alsace dinner, showcasing fall and winter whites, at the consistently superb Craigie on Main. There were a number of familiar faces there, including Jason of Ancient Fire Beverage and Jackie of Leather District Gourmet. Overall, it was a fun evening, with plenty of delicious food and wine as well as lots of interesting conversation. It was a perfect example of the joyous combination of friends, food and wine. Each of those three components is enhanced when combined together. That is something to keep in mind as the new year begins.

Alsace is a French region that borders Germany and Switzerland, and throughout history, control of the Alsace has often switched back and forth between France and Germany. That has led to an interesting fusion of the two cultures. The Alsace has a lengthy history of wine production, currently making over 150 million bottles annually of which they export about 36 million bottles. There are three Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOC) including AOC Alsace, AOC Alsace Grand Cru, and AOC Cremant d' Alsace.

Approximately 92% of Alsatian wines are whites and the primary grapes include Gewurtztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sylvaner. Unlike most of the rest of France, the Alsace identifies their wine by the grape rather than the region. One quirk though has to do with wines labeled Pinot Blanc. Such wines can also include the grape Pinot Auxerrois, though it might not be listed on the label. In fact, a 100% Pinot Auxerrois wine can be labeled as Pinot Blanc. Just one of those wine oddities.

Unfortunately, Alsatian wines aren't on the radar of the average consumer. At the wine store where I work, I have almost never had a customer ask specifically for an Alsatian wine. At least they don't have a negative image of those wines. Dependent on the type of wine a customer desires, I have had success in recommending Alsatian wines, from dry Riesling to spicy Gewurtztraminer. It is more of a handsell though, and Alsatian wines need greater publicity to let the average consumer know of their quality and taste. My dinner at Craigie certainly showed some compelling Alsatian wines, as well as how well they pair with a variety of dishes. These are wines that would satisfy consumers.

Chef Tony Maws created quite a varied menu, including seafood, poultry, pasta, pork, Asian accents, and more. All of the dishes were delicious, as expected, though the pheasant was my clear favorite and I'll talk more about it later in this post. My dining companions all seem similarly impressed with the cuisine. I should note that many of my photos of the various dishes definitely do not do justice to their taste and quality.

We began our multi-course meal with Three Amuse Bouche Preparations, including Nantucket Bay Scallops (with crystalized ginger vinaigrette), Smoked Sablefish Rillettes and Squid Noodles (with nuoc cham). All three were flavorful bites and I enjoyed the smokiness of the rillettes though my favorite was the noodles, with such an umami rich taste. They whetted my appetite, making me eager for the rest of the meal.

Paired with the amuse bouche was the NV Schoenheitz Cremant d' Alsace ($14), a blend of 90% Pinot Auxerrois and 10% Pinot Blanc that was aged on the lees for 24 months. It also has an alcohol content of only 12% and was made with a low dosage. This is an excellent value wine; crisp, clean and elegant with pleasant apple and pear flavors as well as a streak of minerality. Very easy drinking and refreshing, it would be a fine apertif as well as a good pairing with food. You won't find many other sparkling wines that taste this good as this price point.

Our first course was more seafood, Kona Kampachi Sashimi, with thins slices of Asian pear, pinenut-miso puree and pickled mustard seeds. Silky smooth and firm kampachi with a slight sweetness from the miso and the pear. A nice combination of textures as well. The wine pairing was the 2006 Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile Riesling ($50), poured from a magnum. With an alcohol content of 12.75%, this wine is not produced each year, dependent on the quality of the available Riesling grapes. A stunning Riesling, with only a hint of sweetness, and plenty of acidity and minerality. A perfect wine with seafood.

More seafood arrived next, a Slow-Cooked Tasmanian Sea Trout Mi-Cuit with chorizo, scallion, and a boudin noir-housin sauce. A meaty and flavorful fish, the chorizo adding a salty edge though the savory sauce really elevated this dish. An excellent preparation. We had two Rieslings with this dish, one which was not my style though I know plenty of others who would have loved it. The 2009 Josemeyer Hengst Grand Cru Riesling ($66) is biodynamic and had a strong petrol smell, an aroma that I do not enjoy. It came out on the palate too so I wasn't a fan of this wine. However, the 2005 Schleret Herrenweg Riesling ($25) was more my style, dry with floral aromas, crisp acidity and some subtle lemon notes. Plenty of complexity, a satisfying finish and it worked well with the trout.

With a change-up, the next course was House-made Whole Wheat Fettucini with a foie gras-Jerusalem artichoke cream, Brussel sprout leaves, and house-cured lomo. Nice al dente pasta with a creamy, rich sauce enhanced by the salty lomo. This course also brought my favorite wine of the evening, the 2007 Marcel Deiss Engelgarten ($40). "Engelgarten" means "Angel's Garden" and it is a field blend of Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It is also biodynamic and has an alcohol content of 12%. This was a stunning and complex wine, with great tropical fruit flavors, crisp acidity, a strong minerality backbone and hints of spice. A wine to savor either with or without food. Well worth the price and highly recommended. The 2004 Rolly Gassman Pinot Gris ($45), also biodynamic, was delicious too with a compelling nose of Muscat and spice. I think it might have been overshadowed a bit being paired with the amazing Engelgarten.

As I mentioned earlier, my favorite dish of the dinner was the Slow-Roasted Pheasant Breast & Confit Leg with quince, chestnuts, and matsutake mushrooms. This possessed everything you desire from a perfect poultry dish, that addictive crispy skin and tender, moist and flavorful meat. I don't recall ever having a better pheasant dish. Chef Maws may be best known for his pork dishes, but his culinary talents are far broader.

Two Gewurtztraminers were paired with the pheasant, including the certified organic 2001 Becker Gewurtztraminer ($25), which has the usual Gewurtz flavor profile and was light and tasty. The 2010 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Grand Cru Gewurtztraminer ($65) is Biodynamic and was darker in color than the Becker, as well as possessing a stronger Muscat aroma. It had more complexity and intensity of flavor than the Becker, a fine example of the potential of Gewurtz.

Finally, dessert arrived, Whole Wheat Crepes with Macoun apples, pepitas, and butternut ice cream. A nice treat to end the meal, with two Vendages Tardives, late harvest wines. The 2001 Charles Koehly Alternburg Grand Cru Pinot Gris ($55) was thick, rich and complex, with a mild sweetness well balanced by acidity. Delicious flavors of apricot, honey and dried fruits. It was my favorite of the two. The 2008 Valentin-Zusslin Bollenberg Gewurtztraminer Vendages Tardives ($50) was not as rich or sweet, having more acidity, though pleasant tropical fruit flavors.

Help spread the word about Alsatian wines so that they become something well known even to the average consumer. For a couple other recommendations of Crémant d'Alsace, check one of my recent posts.

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