What does this have to do with pinot noir and the price of cheese in China? Even back in 2004 I was getting that itchy-scratchy feeling at the back of my throat, thinking: how the hell did Americans suddenly get so genius with this grape? Good enough so that even the most Frenchified oenophiles would have to admit that they’re coming out as more than reasonable facsimiles of even the best Burgundies? Something, just twenty years ago, most of us in the business thought we would never see in our lifetime.
Have our pinot noir specialists made a pact with the devil? Or has it simply turned out that West Coast terroirs are not such a hell hole for pinot noir after all? That it is not the scrawny, brooding child the late, great André Tchelistcheff once called it back in the sixties? Tchelistcheff also famously said that “all the challenge is getting the surly child to smile,” and aside from occasional accidents of nature, he couldn’t seeing it happening on the West Coast any time soon.
Then again, even towards the end of Tchelistcheff’s career, growing pinot noir (or any types of grape) between Occidental and the Sonoma Coast, below Sebastopol in the teeth of the Petaluma Gap, or anywhere near McMinnville or Lompoc was considered a physical impossibility. Perfectly intelligent people were repeatedly heard to say what once seemed obvious: that you just can’t grow grapes in frigid airs like that (of course you couldn’t… not with the mile x mile spacing, Cousin Itt canopies and grape chewing crushers still in prevalent use thirty years ago).
And dare I say, much of the pinot-will-never-be-great-outside-Burgundy thinking was based upon the premise that correct soil (i.e. Burgundian) is mandatory for great pinot noir. Yes, soil is important, but obviously climate, and simply coming to terms with the topographical cards you are handed with reasonable intelligence and empirical thought processing, have proven far more important. This is as plain as many a new American pinot’s nose: as pure and fragrant as can be.
But wait, hold your horses, because there is still a lot to naysaying going on. For one, I have yet to find a California or Oregon pinot noir that I can honestly say has “improved” with age. So far it seems that the best ones taste great anywhere from two to six years of age; and after that, all bets are off. Good West Coast pinots don’t seem to get better – they just get… old – tired, worn, decrepit. In that sense, lovers of Musigny and Chambertin need hardly hold their breath: pinot noirs from anywhere west of the Saône have yet to show half the longevity of grand or premier crus of olde.
For seconders, it is still no coincidence that the richest, most aromatic and expressive American pinot noirs are tipping the scales at 14% to 15% alcohol (and people complain about zinfandels being too “big”). Now, I agree that alcohol is just one of many sensory factors in fine wine, and that many 14.5% alcohol pinots taste more finesseful, elegant and balanced than pinots of just 12% to 13% alcohol. Nevertheless, at least for me personally, a 15% alcohol pinot noir is hardly classical; and I would surmise, much of the reason why contemporary pinots fall flat after six, eight or so years is because of this ungainly girth.
But hold on to your black leather gloves: the increasing forays into colder climates to extend physiological ripening at lower sugar levels, commitments to closer spacing and drier farming, less and less dependence upon new or heavy toasted oak, and myriad other adjustments big and small seem likely to become part of the combination to eventually lose the knocks on contemporary American pinots.
All this, and more, crystallized during my recent attendance at the tenth annual World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach, California, this past March 5-6, 2010. Hence, this report, with a caveat: although hundreds of top pinot noirs are there for the tasting during this two-day festival, the bulk of it is Californian (lovers of, say, Burgundy and Oregon pinot noir always find slim pickings at this event).
I also participated in something called the Iron Sommelier seminar at this year’s World of Pinot Noir; as one of four sommeliers presenting two “ideal” pinot noirs with a dish prepared from a recipe of our choosing. My dish was a household favorite for sumptuous, spicy reds: Red Cooked Pork Belly, for which a good recipe adapted from Molly Stevens’ All About Braising (W.W. Norton & Co., New York/London) can be found at the end of this post. I matched this classic, Chinese style pork belly with two spice driven, snappy, cold climate grown pinot noirs: the roasted meaty, smoky spiced 2006 Hitching Post Cargasacchi Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills, and the round, juicy, strawberry, peppermint and anise/licorice spiced 2006 Maysara Delara McMinnville from Oregon.
As expected, our audience found that both the Hitching Post and Maysara pinot noirs skipped lightly and fandango-y with the peppery, gingery, cinnamon and star-anise spiced qualities of the pork belly; the crisp acidity and round tannin centers of these black and red fruit driven wines titillating the palate with every bite, even at the fattiest ends. Alas, there was no “voting” in this particular Iron competition; not even an opportunity for jury rigging (as there were no judges). But I guarantee: it was a match those unaccustomed to the appreciation of Asian style food with pinot noir are unlikely to forget.
I don’t score wines; never have, and never will (how stupid is that? – applying numbers to matters of aesthetics or organic subjects, that is), but I do have favorites. Like everyone, I might love vanilla today, but crave chocolate, Dulce de Leche or Mission Marzipan tomorrow (which is why scores are stupid – have I told you how stupid numbers are yet?). And so according to my notes just before, during and after the 2010 World of Pinot Noir, this is how I personally rate the best of the American pinot noirs tasted - basically in order of wow-ness:
2007 Failla, Occidental Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – A sultry wine that hits pinot-ness on all cylinders: huge, billowing, vibrant nose of wild berries and concentrated, wild mint, cinnamon stick and brown sugar spiced strawberry against a backdrop of toasty oak; ultra-smooth, velvet textured layering of the luscious fruit and smoky spice, becoming darker on the palate as it glides atop firm, supple tannin, coating every part of the mouth.
2007 Failla, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – It’s a tribute to the magical (or bedeviling) touch of owner/winemaker Ehren Jordan that he can coax such a combination of delicacy and unadulterated strength from fruit grown in multiple parts of the North Coast. Here, an array of perfumes – fresh sweet berries (red, boysenberry, raspberry…) and smoky spices – surge from the glass, and converge in lush, lively, silky sensations on the palate, finishing with a mouthwatering (or was it jaw dropping?) incandescence, bespeaking the best, or most classic, qualities of the grape.
2008 Native 9, Rancho Ontiveros, Santa Maria Valley – Wild berry berry fragrance intertwined with vivid perfumes of peppermint and red licorice, penetrating the nostrils. Equally dramatic dramatic movement on the palate: a fine, silky entry suddenly electrified by slightly tart edged acidity, electrifying the vivid spiced fruit flavors, then layered with dense tannin adding meat to the bone, before finishing with intricate braiding of the contrasting sensations – light yet full, soft yet edgy, tight yet limber, and effusive yet compact.
2007 Dutton-Goldfield, Dutton Ranch-Freestone Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Tasted the week following World of Pinot Noir: brilliant, deep ruby followed by teeming, luscious aromas of spice essenced red fruit (cardamom, star anise, strawberry, cranberry, black cherry…) which, with almost unbelievable elan, seems to roll into the mouth in dense, thick, round, voluminous waves of flavor; the luscious, almost preserve-like fruit, brightening acidity and muscular tannin merged in seamless singularity.
2007 Dutton-Goldfield, Devil’s Gulch, Marin – The Marin peninsula, south of Petaluma, sees plenty of seasonal sun, but the climate is relatively cool; different, yet comparable, to conditions seen along the more vaunted Sonoma Coast. Steep terracing (up to 60% grades) also effects what comes out in the bottle: in the hands of winemaker/partner, Dan Goldfield, a pinot noir thoroughly saturated, from beginning to end, with sweet, perfumed wild cherry/raspberry fruitiness; thick with youthful, sinewy tannin, yet rounded enough for the zesty flavors to permeate the palate, the silken fine, intertwining sensations slipping over its fisted core.
2006 Freestone, Sonoma Coast – Can American pinot noir get any lusher, sharper and lissome as this? I also walked through Freestone’s precipitously steep vineyard (at 200-500 feet, in a fog smothered section of the “true” Sonoma Coast) – on a recent ear stinging day, so I got an even better feel for what I’d already tasted, comin thro’ the rye: heady, penetrating perfumes of super-plump strawberry, cassis, whiffs of smoke, and ephemeral yet distinct, toasted anise-like spice. On the palate, the incisive, acid zested strawberry fruitiness pierces clear through the velvet wrapping, lighting it up like a finger in the socket (haven’t tried it lately, but remember the feeling well). This (along with Dutton-Goldfield’s Freestone Hill) is definitely among the coastal growths that are changing the way American pinot noir is grown and defined.
2008 Costa de Oro, Dijon Selection, Santa Maria Valley – Unabashedly intense, yet beautifully sculpted pinot; the nose telegraphing rich, plush, concentrated red berry/strawberry fruitiness with subtle toasted underpinning; then on the palate, a buxom, velvety, medium-full body, releasing the sweet red berry sensations in round, voluptuous, exhilarating waves.
2007 Hartford Family, Arrendell Vineyard, Russian River Valley – From one of the coldest sites in the Russian River Valley’s Green Valley sub-AVA, and tasted the week following World of Pinot Noir: deep nose of black cherry with savory/thyme kitchen herb spices, leaping from the glass; the fruit qualities stuffed into aggressively round, fleshy, densely packed textures on the palate, gripping the taste receptors as they roll into a palate-popping finish.
2007 Chasseur, Umino Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Tasted just prior to World of Pinot Noir, a pinot sourced from the cool center of Sebastopol Hills, explosive with sweetly perfumed, violet and red berry/strawberry aromas; soft, silky entry, turning zesty with voluptuous, mouthwatering fruit in the middle, saturating the senses with downright regal qualities of sheer richness, poise and balance.
2007 Chasseur, Blank, Russian River Valley – Another blue chip from the heart of Sebastopol Hills; violet tinged color and humongous varietal nose of raspberry and strawberry, rose petals, savory herb spices, and smoky tobacco leaves; the sensations following up in a soft yet zesty, perfectly round, plump, velvety, seamless mouth-feel. From top to bottom, beginning to end: very complete, vivid, exacting, exciting.
2008 Baker Lane, Ramondo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – The Ramondo is located at the southeast edge of Sebastopol Hills, a sub-region recently (in 2005) incorporated into the Russian River Valley AVA; but perhaps, sharing more of the restrained, textured qualities of other lower elevation Sonoma Coast (the larger, overlapping AVA) growths. As with a number of other pinot noirs from this fog chilled region, I find a lush strawberryish concentration in the nose, pure and unfettered by excesses like oak or warm, cola-like fruit. On the palate, the fruit intensity is woven with licorice and bright, dried red currant qualities; soft, round, velvety sensations, long and sexy in the feel.
2007 Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Sierra Madre Vineyard, at the westernmost, coolest edge of Santa Maria Valley’s planted acreage, has been supplying first class grapes to over two dozen other wineries each year going on well nigh two, three decades. Now they also produce wine under their own label, and about time, too: the nose rattles the senses with super-sweet strawberry alarm, incense and peppermint fragrances, and bang-bang vibrato. The sensations are fat and juicy at first sip, then prickly fresh and persistent in the middle, sticking to the palate in bright, fresh fashion. Nice, pure, interpretation of the grape, almost impertinent in its obstinance, whatever that means.
2007 Zepaltas, Suacci Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - Ryan Zepaltas (who also assists at Siduri and makes the wines for Soliste and Suacci Carciere) crafts small lots of single vineyard pinots that show a meticulous hand and puristic sensibility. The Suacci highlights the red fruit, animating acidity and slim, sinewy attributes of many wines from Sebastopol Hills, intersecting the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley AVAs, and Zepaltas' talent is in making them taste exactly like that. Here, the sweet, concentrated nose and flavors cast cherry/raspberry perfumes with pomegranate-like pulpiness and just a suggestion of cola. The palate feel is tight yet silky; tannin and oak dialed back far enough for the the lush flavors to expand well beyond the composed parameters.
2007 Pillow Rd., Russian River Valley – Further evidence that it is at the southern end of the Russian River Valley, south and west of Sebastopol (Pillow Rd.’s vineyard straddles the Green Valley of Russian River Valley and unofficial Sebastopol Hills sub-regions) where more and more of the prettiest, balanced, buoyant styles of North Coast pinot noir are be coming from (’07 is this winery’s second vintage). The aroma here is of cake spice tinged strawberry/cherry/raspberry, pure and unadorned by wood or other manipulations. On the palate, the round, fresh, juicy red berry qualities are revved up by bright acidity, encased in a moderately weighted body; and echoing the clarity the nose, the feel is pretty much free of bitter oak tannin, allowing the fruit profile to address the senses directly without passing go.
2007 Hartford Family, Jennifer’s, Russian River Valley – A more aggressive, deeply extracted, lower fruit toned style of pinot noir from the cool climes of the Russian River Valley’s Sebastopol Hills (as opposed to the more fragrant, feminine, strawberry-red fruit forward qualities I usually find in pinots from this sub-region). The nose is scented with dark berries, a violet perfume and coffee grinder spice and smoke; the tannins full yet finely polished, and zesty acid punctuating the thick, pulpy, meaty textured flavors.
2008 Siduri, Sonatera Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – Fruit from the Sonatera Vineyard, located just east and south of the Russian River Valley’s Sebastopol Hills (pretty much in the thick of the fog rolling through the Petaluma Gap) goes to just two wineries: Siduri and Soliste, and both are stellar. This growth seems to give crisp edged, finely delineated styles of pinot noir; as in Siduri’s, with its deeply aromatic, lush, bright strawberry/cherry/blackberry fragrances, underlined with beefy undertones; the palate feel, zesty and medium-full, chiseled yet round and seamlessly knit; and the Christmas pie-plump, sweet fruitiness, distinctly under-oaked, rising from a stratum of sturdy yet giving tannin.
2007 Balletto, Burnside Vineyard, Russian River Valley – It’s hard to get enough of these fabulously lush, focused pinot noirs coming from below Sebastopol, the coolest corner of the Russian River Valley. The nose here is drenched in strawberry syrup, dried cherry and raspberry, with spice qualities suggesting clove punctured orange peel, plus foresty/pine-cone like notes. Fat and luscious with fruit, amply supported by freshening acidity and a modicum of fine-grain tannin, rendering a buoyant, balanced feel to the irrepressibly exuberant fruit profile.
2007 Dierberg, Steven Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – I’ve been told that this producer has been gracefully retreating from the black, burly, pedal-to-the-metal style of earlier vintages, but I’m glad they haven’t taken off the foot all the way. There’s a lot to be said, after all, for pinot noir that lays it all out on the line (you may adore Billie Holiday and Diana Krall, but who doesn’t love being slapped around by Chrissie Hynde or MC Lyte every once in a while?). The Steven is a deep, fleshy, muscular yet svelte wine; its nose inundated with peppery spice, smoked meats and dried forest floor leaves, and the requisite floral, sweet pinot-berry perfume. Turn up the grill, praise the lord and pass the steaks.
2007 Roessler, Clos Pepe, Sta. Rita Hills – Roessler is churning out an entire sumo stable of pinot behemoths these days, and I mean that in a good way: this cuvée, for instance, is so plump yet thickly muscled, toothsome yet amazingly light on its feet, that you gotta give it props, even if the juicy black pepper/pepperminty spiced strawberry/raspberry doth seem to runneth over in glorious, uncouth nakedness. There are minerally, scrubby undertones keeping bright fruit grounded; and although soft around the edges, the fruit is zippy with energetic acidity.
2007 Evening Land Vineyards, Two Daughters Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – Super-intense, sweet berry/rhubarb fragrance mingling with spices suggesting cinnamon, clove and smoked pepper. At first, lean and sprightly on the palate; then in the middle, the spiced berry qualities fill out the medium weight body, heightening the lithe, lively, silk textured qualities before finishing long yet gently.
2007 Tolosa, Marley Anne-Block 518, Edna Valley – Not long ago nearly all Edna Valley pinot noirs were dismissed as weak, Beaujolais-types because, well, that’s the way it was. Tolosa’s Marley Anne puts a decisive end to that assumption, beginning with its super-lush nose, suggesting strawberry jam tilted towards violet and blueberry; with quieter notes of apparently terroir related qualities, suggesting dried scrub and loam. The flavors are surprisingly deep and muscle toned for a wine that is outwardly plump, supple and sweetly scented; the pinot qualities striking rich, pure chords all the way through the progression.
2008 Drake, H Block-Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Multifaceted nose of floral/rose petal, fresh berry and stemmy, green leafy nuances. Despite the leafiness in the nose, flush with juicy, silken textured fruitiness on the palate; fleshy yet finely composed, balanced, lively, almost delicate qualities, laying down its slender, feminine frame with finesse and ease.
2007 Flying Goat, Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills – I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a Flying Goat that wasn’t right on the money; and amazingly, this is winemaker/proprietor Norman Yost’s first bottling from this fairly young vineyard (owned by Foley Family Estates, where Yost once was winemaker). This bottling regales the senses with a rich blend of blueberry and raspberry, with earthen, rhubarb-like undertones; seamless flow on the palate, the silken layers of zesty berryish fruit dancing on the palate, while underpinned by firm yet unobstrusive tannin.
2008 Pali, Fiddlestix, Sta. Rita Hills – The nose is wild with fresh crushed raspberry and blueberry fragrances, and the exuberant fruitiness tucked into a moderated yet curvaceous body, beefed up by velvet textures and brothy flavors. The flavors run deep, dense, luscious, touching all parts of the palate. Great vineyard, and a terrific winemaking (that is to say, skilled enough leaving well enough alone.
2008 Freeman, Akiko’s Cuvée, Sonoma Coast – Another new winery “discovery” for me; this bottling representing a blend of multiple vineyards along the Sonoma Coast and the fog shrouded Petaluma Gap and Sebastopol Hills. Beautifully bright, floral perfume, mixing purple plum and bing cherry; the intense fruit qualities balanced on a taut yet silken smooth frame, skipping nimbly into a rich, rousing yet finely composed finish.
2008 Alma Rosa, Clone 667-La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – Tasted the week prior to World of Pinot Noir; sweetly concentrated strawberry/cherry cola nose with roasted/beefy and red licorice notes; yet almost belying the deep aromas, lithe and lively on the palate; the red berry flavors coming across as sleek and fine boned (think whispery waif in a supple, black leather jacket).
2008 Paul Hobbs, Russian River Valley – I always approach the products of celebrity winemaker brands with skepticism, but damned if this one just hits the North Coast pinot profile right between the eyes: gushy wild berry aroma tinged with smoky, brown spices; sweet, lively berry flavors encased in velvet as smooth and inviting as the shagged walls of Elvis’ Jungle Room; all the aforementioned, stretching across the palate in impeccably tight, fluid balance.
2007 Cargasacchi, Cargassachi-Jalama Vineyard, Santa Barbara County – Cargasacchi’s Jalama is located beyond the boundaries of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Point Concepcion; as such, the coldest, westernmost site in Santa Barbara County. Within a compact, pert, marbled beeefy frame, there is a nice burst of bright, sweet varietal qualities; and despite sturdy tannin in the middle, the feel is plump and plush, and the body just moderately weighted, topped with flavors of cocoa dusted raspberry and twiggy earth tones. If you’re looking for the usual surfeit of body and ultra-ripe fruitiness found in most California pinots (as charming as it may be), don’t bother searching here; but this is one vineyard to keep your eye on, if you prefer pinots of more moderate weight and classical scale.
2008 Dragonette, Fiddlestix, Sta. Rita Hills – The Fiddlestix vineyard continues to be a rich source of dynamic, expressive pinots for a number of Santa Barbara producers, and this is among the better ones: red berry pinot qualities filled out by smoky, beefy qualities; and on the palate, the round, meaty, berryish fruit underlined by a judicious dose of toasted oak, steered by buoyant yet sturdy sensations.
2008 CRU, Santa Lucia Highlands – Bright beacon of raspberry/strawberry fragrances characterize a luscious pinot fruitiness, neatly packed into a medium-full yet compact body, putting everything in its place: notably racy acidity, moderately firm yet pliant tannin, and outwardly plummy, smoothly finished flavors, bouncing through the palate.
2008 Landmark, Grand Detour, Sonoma Coast – Unerring blend of multiple cool climate vineyards; exuberant, toasty, fat, fleshy, luscious fruit strapped over full, expansive, tannin lined body.
2007 ROAR, Gary’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Focused, winsome, strawberry/red berry fragrance harmonized with subtle smoke of oak; very fine, silky sensations, the fruit sharpened by piquant acidity, alive and lustrous the palate.
2008 Alma Rosa, Clone 115-La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – Richly perfumed nose of red berry and cassis; soft, fleshy, sensuously curved frame; the fruit focused sensations rich and cohesive on the palate.
2007 Stephen Ross, Stone Corral Vineyard, Edna Valley – Exceptionally bright, focused, cinnamon and pepper spiced strawberry fruit; velvet layers flowing smoothly across the palate.
2007 MacPhail, Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – While carrying a Sonoma moniker, sourced from the Russian River’s Sebastopol Hills; extremely pretty, compelling strawberry/raspberry nose embedded in smoky oak; fairly full, toasty, yet round, silky; the lush fruit zippy in the middle.
2007 Keller, El Coro, Sonoma Coast – Effusive nose of red berries, licorice, brown spices and subtle, smoky oak; full yet very round, and velvet textured body, allowing the fruit to drive the qualities in the mouth.
2007 Soliste, Sonatera Vineyard-T Block, Sonoma Coast – Transparent cold climate style; slightly unyielding youthful nose giving up sweet strawberry concentration; medium rather than full body, tightly woven with zippy acidity and firming tannin, the flavors running deep enough to exert an exhilaratingly fresh, bright presence.
2007 Flying Goat, Dierberg Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Super-juiced red berry perfume tinged with peppermint and brown spices; deep, dense yet finely textured through a long, fruit dominated finish.
2008 Freeman, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley – An exceptional new brand to keep your eye on; this bottling sporting a sweet array of red and black fruit, just lightly toasted; plush, juicy, long and refreshing on the palate.
2007 Pisoni Estate, Santa Lucia Highlands – Sweet, heady, wild blackberry perfume with resiny, dried herb spices amplified by rich, toasty smoke-of-oak; the aggressive notes signaled in the nose backed by a big, luscious palate profile, powered further by a core of solid tannin.
2007 Sinor La-Vallee, Talley-Rincon Vineyards, Arroyo Grande Valley – Soft, friendly yet vigorous style; chocolate dust coated cherry cola fruit with subtle toast; velvet layers punctuated by zippy acidity.
2007 Sinor La-Vallee, Aubain Vineyard, Central Coast – Flowery scented, lush, opulent generosity; brimming with cherry cola-like fruit; fleshy and densely extracted on the palate.
2007 Merry Edwards, Meredith Estate, Russian River Valley – From Sebastopol Hills; deeply pigmented, grippy style, yet bursting at the seams with sweet raspberry/strawberry fruit, with generous oak embellishments sitting behind the plush fruit, revved up by snappy acidity.
2008 Pessagno, Lucia Highlands Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – In the big, viscous, sumptuous, seductive style that has popularized many Santa Lucia Highlands pinots: satin and lace garbed concentration of crushed cherry and cranberry, scented with violet and a touch of smoky oak.
2007 Surh Luchtel, Umino Vineyard, Russian River Valley – Another Sebastopol Hills sourced bottling tasted just prior to World of Pinot Noir; plush strawberries with floral, rose petal fragrances; satin entry, with bright, forward red fruit qualities underlined by soft acidity and rounded tannin.
2007 Foxen, Bien Nacido Vineyard–Block 8, Santa Maria Valley – Sweet red berry nose tinged with red licorice and brown/toasty spices; the fruit and oak tannins wound tightly on the palate, underlying the rich layers of spiced red berry qualities.
2006 Dukes Family, Alyssa, Willamette Valley – Handsome, multifaceted nose of brambly blackberry, and raspberry veering towards cinnamon scented black cherry; sturdy, fleshy, quite full for an Oregon style.
2008 MacMurray Ranch, Russian River Valley – Gentle yet precise style, honed by a sweet toned nose and a slender yet long, silky feel; the pinot fruit qualities balanced on a pin.
2007 Chamisal, Califa Selection, Edna Valley – Sweet scented strawberry/cherry cola fragrance; slightly big in the mouth, but fine, silky flavors melting into a backdrop of earthen, tannin and oak sensations.
RED-COOKED BORK BELLY with Bok Choy
Adapted from All About Braising, Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton & Co., New York/London)
One 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced into 6-8 coins and smashed
3 scallions, white and green parts, cut into 1-inch pieces
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 oz. Chinese rock sugar, smashed into small rocks with hammer (or ¼ cup brown sugar)
2 whole star anise
¼ cup dry sherry
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup dark mushroom soy sauce
5 cups chicken stock (or water)
1-½ to 2 lbs. pork belly, preferably skin-on, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 lb. bok choy (1 medium head or 3 baby heads)
1 ½ tablespoons peanut oil
Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper
¼ cup water
1. Braising liquid: In carbon steel or stainless steel wok, combine ginger, scallions, cinnamon stick, sugar, star anise, sherry, boy soy sauces, and stock or water. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar, and boil for 12-15 minutes to infuse liquid with spices.
2. Braise: Slide pork into the wok and lower the heat to gentle simmer. Braise, uncovered, turning pork with tongs from time to time to braise evenly, until meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours. Monitor heat so sauce simmers modestly, never vigorously. Lower heat if necessary.
3. Meanwhile, washing and trimming bok choy: Rinse bok choy thoroughly, paying close attention to inside hollow at base of each leaf where dirt tends to gather. Drain. Cut lower ribs crosswise into 1-inch pieces, and slice the leaves into slightly wider 1-½ strips. Set stems and leaves aside in separate bowls.
4. Simmer bok choy: When pork is tender, turn off heat and let sit. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bok choy stems handful at a time and cook, stirring, until stems throw off their water and soften, 4-5 minutes. Immediately begin adding leaves, stirring and tossing with tongs, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Add water, cover, and lower heat to medium. Simmer until bok choy is crisp/tender, about 5 minutes more. Set aside in warm spot.
5. Finish: With tongs, transfer pork to large platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Strain the braising liquid medium sauce pan, and discard solids. Skim some but not all of clear fat from surface (some fat essential to flavor). Boil the braising liquid until reduced by one quarter to one half, about 8 minutes. Taste. Should be salty and intense.
6. Serving: Serve pork and bok choy with drizzle of reduced braising liquid.