Thursday, August 31, 2006

TN: 2003 [Unknown Producer] Yiwu Pu-erh

Type: Sheng / raw pu-erh
Harvest year: 2003
Producer: (unknown)
Appellation: Yiwu, Yunnan, China
Price: USD$145 per 500gr beeng
Source: Stéphane Erler of Tea Masters

Dry leaves: Visually already quite aged for a 3-year old tea. Dark brown color generally, with black leaves here and there. Silvery, hairy buds visible throughout. A very nice waft of sweet, menthol-y smell.

Wet leaves: Smells sweet and menthol-y. Salty sweet aroma.

2003 Yiwu

Stéphane’s Method: less leaves, longer infusion time

In his email to me, Stéphane wrote: “The best way to brew [this tea] is light: fewer leaves and long brewing time (roughly 1 minute, 2 minutes...).” So I followed his advice and found that the resulting brew by his method was excellent! I learned a new thing.

Parameter: “small” amount of leaves in a 4oz gaiwan (not weighed, but about 1/3 of my usual habit with sheng pu-erh), flash rinse, wait 1m, and then infuse for 1m, 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 3m, 3m, 4m, 5m, 10m, 20m, 30m.

Impeccable clarity! Medium brown-reddish color, almost luminous. Subtle, mellow aromas and not bitter, even though it received a long infusion time. The menthol-y or minty characteristic of this tea really shines…it gives a pleasant cooling and tingling feeling inside the mouth and throat. Medium bodied. The texture of this tea is very smooth with sateen-like tannin. Elegant. By the third infusion, I felt sufficiently buzzed and my body warm. Good overall cha qi. Best from the 2nd to 5th infusion, after which the tea goes on to give a pleasant sweet pu-erh taste until my last 9th brew, which I gave a 30-minute infusion.

5 stars (outstanding!)
So far, it is the best young pu-erh I’ve ever tasted, regardless of price.

My Method: more leaves, shorter infusion time

Parameter: “normal” amount of leaves in a 4oz gaiwan, flash rinse, wait 1m, and then infuse for 10 to 15 seconds from the 1st infusion until the 8th infusion.

Exceptional clarity! When brewed with the more-leaves-shorter-infusion method, this tea had a fruitier profile and salty ocean breeze aroma. It retained its minty and cooling traits, but somehow I felt it less than when I brewed it by Stéphane’s way. Tannin is quite pucker-y and mouth drying. Of salty sweet, plums, apricot, green apple, with a slight vegetal bitterness. Fuller bodied. Best from 3rd to 6th brew. Robust cha-qi.

4+ stars (vg – outstanding!)

Addendum to the tasting note is attached under this post's comment.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dinner at One Pico in Santa Monica

We went to dinner at One Pico, a favorite restaurant of ours inside the Shutters On The Beach Hotel in Santa Monica. The best thing about One Pico is its atmosphere and ambience created by the Santa Monica beach and the Pacific Ocean's deep blue water just outside the restaurant's large windows. The interior decor is bright, airy and complements the great view. Yesterday, the weather and the sunset were simply magnificent! And as usual, the food was excellent and the service was gracious. We had a great time there being temporarily away from our parental obligations while Sophia stayed home with her grandparents.

What’s disappointing, however, was that they don't allow BYOB anymore. When I called ahead to confirm the corkage fee, the maître d' told me that the hotel "did away the BYOB policy a few months ago." Oh no! I planned to bring a couple of wonderful wines from home: a Krug Grand Cuvee and a '95 Bodega Muga ‘Prado Enea’ Gran Reserva. So how's their wine list then? Boring and uninspiring. It contains mostly of so-so Californian whites and reds, with a few well-known "status" wines in the red section such as Opus One, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Joseph Phelp's Insignia. Imported wine selections? Appallingly few.

But we didn't go there just for the wines (I consoled myself)...

For starters, we ordered a plate of harvest salad that comes with sliced apples, pecans and goat cheese. We paired it with a glass of L'Estandon Cotes de Provence Rosé (vintage unknown). We also had a bowl of roasted Santa Barbara mussels with saffron, chorizo and crostinis, which we paired with a glass of the Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuissé (vintage also unknown). The rosé was dry and pleasant enough, with fruity (baked strawberry?) taste, while the Pouilly-Fuissé was very refreshing with citric lemon-lime taste and a somewhat spicy finish. For a chardonnay wine, this Pouilly-Fuissé had no oakyness or the round, creamy malolactic mouthfeel that is generic in most Californian chardonnays.

Heitz CellarFor the steak entrees, we ordered a bottle of the 2001 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (~$40 retail, $110 at the restaurant). I found the wine to be a bit too round-bodied and supple for a CA cab. It resembled a merlot more than a cab, I thought. The nose was good though: blueberry pie/jam, dark chocolate, mocha, coffee, and some mintiness. The tannin was already mellow from the get-go, resulting in a creamy and supple mouthfeel. It went decently well with our steaks, though I wished for more oomph.

What a pity that they did away with the BYOB policy without revving up their wine list
first. This is just against the wonderful BYOB culture that is quite the norm in Southern California's dining scene. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time and meal there, despite the wines. I guess we could say that we washed our dinner down by drinking in the view.

2001 Heitz Wine Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon
Technical Notes

Varietal: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Appellation: 100% Napa Valley
Oak Aging: 3 years (One year American Oak tanks and 2 years in French Limousin Oak barrels)
Residual Sugar: Dry
Alcohol: 14.5%
Release Date: February 2005

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Off-topic: It Ain't Aix en Provence...

Jakarta's suburban wet market.
It's provincial, not Provençal, but as lively!
The products are grown locally, fresh and the varieties are astounding.

Photographs by Phyll Sheng, August 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

TN: 2004 Mas de Fournel, Pic Saint Loup, Coteaux du Languedoc

After a day of fun at the L.A. Zoo (Sophia loved the zebras and the elephants), I came home hungry and craving for a glass of BIG, hearty red wine. So I scoured my wine fridge hoping to find that kind of wine I am in the mood for. Hmm…hey, here it is, a wine from Pic Saint Loup sub-appellation in Coteaux du Languedoc. Let's see the back label here...70% syrah, 30% grenache. Yes, this should be the wine for the moment!

To my surprise, this wine was not the BIG, hearty type. Could this really be syrah and grenache from the Mediterranean-weathered Languedoc?! It reminded me more of a Californian pinot noir (except for the spicy finish)! Live and learn, I guess.

TN: (13.5%, $15) Deep garnet, but not opaque. Red berries predominant. Slightly baked aroma. Also of plums and sour cherries nose. Medium bodied. Plenty of tart acidity and dry on the palate. Quite oaky...too oaky, perhaps. Dusty, coating tannin. Peppery (spicy) and dry finish.

Not my kind of wine for tonight, but a decent wine nevertheless. Surprising!

3 stars (g)

Background information from the exporter’s website:

The Estate

Mas de Fournel is a small estate located in the famous area of Pic St Loup, named after the peak overlooking the rugged hillside in the Coteaux du Languedoc, in the northern region of Montpellier, on the French Mediterranean coast. Mas de Fournel dates back to the 14th century and used to be a rest home for retired priests. Current owner Gerard Jeanjean previously ran a successful trucking compangy and his interest turned progressively to wine. He released his first vintage in 1997.

The Vineyard
The soil is a mix of red clay, limestone and pebbles, which gives complexity to the wines. Gerard Jeanjean believes in low yields leading to ripe and concentrated grapes that are harvested according to parcel ripeness rather than varietal.

The Pic St Loup AOC was created in 1994 (within the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC created in 1985). It is the most northerly appellation within the Languedoc region, half an hour drive north of Montpellier, and includes 14 villages. The area of production measures 970 ha mainly planted to Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. A blend of minimum 2 grapes is mandatory. The climate is Mediterranean, with a decent average rainfall in winter and generally very dry during the rest of the year.

TN: 2006 Dong Ding Oolong, Feng Huang Village, Taiwan

Dong Ding oolong “classic” w/ light roast
Feng Huang Village, Taiwan
2006, spring harvest
Source: Stéphane Erler of Tea Masters

Click here for Stéphane Erler's article about the producer of this tea.

2006 Dong Ding Oolong, Feng Huang, TaiwanDry: each pellet is tightly compressed. Deep, dark green, while some are medium green in color. Quite stalky.

Wet: each pellet opens up to large whole leaves (or a leaf) with deep, dark green color. Excellent looking!

Parameter: flash rinse once, wait 30s, then 8s, 8s, 15s, 20s, 20s, 45s.

Medium yellow - light brown liquor color.

Beautiful perfume / bouquet! I loved smelling the bottom of my cup, and then the wet leaves in my gaiwan (repeat many times over). The aftertaste was also very pleasant and lingering. I can’t really describe the smell, except with ordinary words: “Floral, fruity, with a tint of grass. Sweet smelling. Classy. Beautiful.”

On my palate, this tea was light bodied and airy. Such was my impression because there is an absence of mouthfeel in the mid-section of my tongue, giving an impression of a hole, or as I usually describe teas and wines with such feel, a “doughnut hole.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though personally I prefer a whole mouthfeel, even in light-bodied teas and wines. The texture of this tea was smooth.

I thought this “doughnut hole” might be due to the water I used. After 3 brews, I switched from using New Zealand artesian water to using Arrowhead spring water. Two days later, I decided to brew this tea again (same parameter) using Crystal Geyser spring water, which is a personal favorite. The hollowness, however, still persisted with all 3 types of good water.

Overall: The lack of mouthfeel is more than made up by its excellent perfume and aftertaste. Mild, calming cha qi.

3+ stars (g – vg!)

Friday, August 18, 2006

2 New Tea Things From My Recent Trip

^ A nice gift from my aunt, who is twice the tea drinker than I am, though she doesn't like wine. My Chinese zodiac is dragon, so it fits! 8 oz capacity.

^ A 6 oz gaiwan with yellow dragons in/on blue wavy water etching. I purchased a pair of this at Teh 63, the same place where I got the Jawa oolong. I gave one to my aunt for her use and to remember me by whenever she brews her tea in it. Good quality, feels substantial, and the lid fits the bowl perfectly. Not a bad buy, I think.

Jawa Oolong

It wasn’t easy finding decent tea in Jakarta. My wife and I spent three weeks in that city recently. The first few days there we sadly drank over-sweetened bottled, supermarket canned and bland restaurant teas. The teas served in many restaurants are brewed from teabags or low quality, mass produced loose leaves grown in nearby mountains. These are coarse and characterless black teas meant for mass consumption and served free of charge to diners.

Bottled and Canned Teas

(Left: Teh Botol, too sweet; Right: Pokka green tea, tasteless)

We were loitering in a shopping mall when we saw a Chinese tea shop called Teh 63, so we checked it out. The store carries quite an extensive line of tea accessories but only a few types of Taiwanese oolongs (Gao Shan, Dong Ting and Li Shan) and Jawa oolongs. The saleswomen were very friendly and polite, more than willing to let us try every tea, and they know how to brew gongfu style too!Jawa OolongsWhile I thought their Taiwanese oolongs were so-so, the Jawa oolong was actually quite interesting! It’s got round, full body and smooth mouthfeel with plenty of caramel, burnt sugar, deep floral, soft roast/smoky, and nutty aromas. Though it’s a green oolong, its vegetal taste is subtle and does not dominate.

The lady who brewed the tea for us said that this Jawa oolong came from tea farms around Bogor, harvested from 5-year old bushes that were grown from Taiwanese seeds. Apparently, Teh 63 owns and manages the tea farms for their Jawa oolong. She also said that their Jawa oolong is slightly more astringent than its Taiwanese counterpart, but I didn’t notice that somehow.

Bogor Tea Harvest
Bogor, located about 55km south of Jakarta, is quite a bustling town that is surrounded by plenty of rural areas on the foot of Mount Salak. Its altitude (avg. 190m, max. 350m above sea level) and topography bestow the area a terroir of extremely fertile soil, warm days and cool, occasionally foggy nights (avg. temp. 26C year round). Bogor is sort of a weekend getaway place for the denizens of Jakarta looking for cooler, cleaner mountain air and fresh good foods.

Anyway, after liking the Jawa oolong in the store, I decided to get 100gr first. We drank this tea almost every morning with breakfast at my parents’ home. I grew fond of it. Before we left Jakarta, I bought another 800gr, 200gr of which is mixed with jasmine petals. They’d make nice everyday tea. In Los Angeles, I was able to brew it with better artesian water than the sub par filtered water in Jakarta. As a result, the tea came out noticeably smoother and lighter.

Maybe I like it because it reminds me of “home”…a nice cup of tea grown near my hometown. Nostalgia. A classic example of enjoyment through association? Maybe.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sophia's 1st Birthday Wine: 2004 Te Whare Ra Gewürztraminer

After a sad trip home for my mother’s funeral, I was elated to be back in Los Angeles to prepare for our Sophia’s 1st birthday bash! As such, last week was an incredibly hectic week…whew! On Sunday we celebrated her birthday with 20 or so close friends and family members. I had a really good time, and I believe everybody else did too despite the fact the function room’s air conditioner performed poorly in trying to stymie the summer heat.

At home after the party, tired and spent, and after putting our Sophia to bed, my wife and I decided to open a bottle of beautiful wine that carries a special meaning to us. We visited New Zealand in 2004 and had the chance to spend 4 nights in the beautiful Marlborough wine country on the South Island. While there, we "paid homage" to many wineries. Some are internationally well-known such as Cloudy Bay, Villa Maria, Hunter’s, Mud House, and Allan Scott. There was one small, family-owned winery that stood out as being unique and artisanal, though somewhat lesser known. I wish it remains a lesser known gem of the region, for my own selfish reasons.

The winery’s name is Te Whare Ra, which means “House in the Sun” in local Maori language. It is located in a small, charming town of Renwick. I can still picture in my mind that cloudy, rainy day when I drove into its driveway, thinking “Is this a winery or did we just trespass onto someone’s private home?” The facility and its tasting room are unexpectedly home-like (wooden, 2-storey home with a large garage, if I recall correctly). It was like visiting your aunt's countryside home, I guess. Never judge a winery by its tasting room!

Te Whare Ra claims to be the oldest boutique winery in the region and it is run by a husband and wife team, the Flowerdays. The couple apparently know what they are doing and have extensive wine lineage and background. For all I know, they are the geniuses who managed to squeeze the terroir out of their vineyards and into the bottles!

The wine I love is their 2004 Te Whare Ra Gewürztraminer. When I tasted this wine at their tasting room on the 2nd floor of the winery, it stood out among their other offerings of riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Unfortunately, with hefty airline overweight fee in mind, we could only afford to carry 2 bottles of this extraordinary juice and 1 bottle of the 2004 riesling back with us to LA. When we opened them at home, I simply couldn’t get enough! I hunted them down locally for quite a while before I gave up and emailed Chris de Wagt, the winery’s manager, to ask where and how I could get my hands on their wines in the USA. After several phone calls, I was able to get them through Garagiste in Seattle. By far, Garagiste is the only retailer/importer I know of that offers Te Whare Ra’s wines on a limited basis from time to time.

TN: 2004 Te Whare Ra Gewürztraminer (13.8%, US$16)

At about 55 – 60F. Light gold-yellow color. Focused nose of pineapple, white cranberry, tropical fruits, and white flower. A very fruit-forward nose. Quite viscous on the palate for a light-colored wine. Medium bodied (from the 13.8% alcohol?). Limey, grapefruit-y, with orange bitters. Bright acidity. Tastes like the wine didn't go through malolactic nor touch any oak. Finish has an orange bitter taste to it. I like this wine for its purity of taste, it's like I could taste the grapes out of the vine. This wine was a labor of love, and I would consider it “artisanal” and unique, not to mention a great bargain too!

4 stars (vg!)

Oh, did I mention that New Zealand was where we “got” our Sophia? I guess for this reason alone Marlborough will forever be a special place for us.

Side TN: 2004 Te Whare Ra Riesling (12.5%, US$16)

At about 55 – 60F. Light gold-yellow with straw green. Ripe pear, white peach, and ripe green plum. In the background, very noticeable floral nose (of edelweiss or of chrysanthemum?). Medium bodied. Soft and smooth on the palate. Slightly more viscous and "creamier" than a classic Mosel riesling (i.e. 2003 German vintage excluded). Very elegant and well made.

3+ stars (g - vg)

Monday, August 7, 2006

Thank You & I'm Back

Thank you to many of you for your kind words of support during these past few difficult weeks. For those who did not know why I was away for more than 3 weeks, I had to fly to my hometown for my mother's funeral.

She had been ill for the past 8 months and finally succumbed to complications from her previous surgery. The only consolation I have is knowing that she no longer suffers from her illness and, of course, the love and support I received from my family, friends and all of you who offered me your soothing words of sympathy. For this, I again thank you so very much.

I have just returned to home in LA yesterday night. Several topics and TNs are already in my mind, so I look forward to writing, tasting and updating this blogsite again soon...perhaps after the jetlag is gone.