With My Mouth Wide Open

One of the banes of reading wine journalism, I have always thought, is the glowing, multi-adjectived report on extraordinary meals that the writer has consumed and that you, poor underprivileged reader, have not – often with an implied “nor will you ever, you miserable peasant.” So, with considerable ambivalence, I am about to inflict not one but two such on you – not to glory in my caloric excess, but because in both cases what really impressed me was the interplay of the food and the wine. That for me is what wine is really all about. To sip a wine by itself as an aperitif or by itself as a dessert can be lovely, but fundamentally wine is a food and belongs with food, and that is where it shows itself best.

Event 1 – A Dinner in Palermo

The Wildman/GIV trip that I wrote about on November 27 included a dinner at the palazzo of Laurent Bernard de la Gatenais in Palermo. The palazzo and most of the vineyards that make up the Rapitalà estate have been in de la Gatenais’s family for generations, and he had himself taken the dinner preparations in hand, so this was probably as authentic an expression of Sicilian cucina di monzù as I am ever likely to experience. What struck me most about it was its seeming simplicity: If the highest art is to conceal art, this dinner was high art indeed.

Photos: Odila Galer-Noel

First, little snacks of panella – tiny, salted chickpea-flour fritters, superb appetizers. Then a primo from the heart of Sicilian tradition: a timballo. This was a golden pastry crust, lightly flavored with orange rind, encasing a filling of pasta, chicken, peas, capers, and cheese – think “The Big Night” and you’re on the right track. For secondo, we had a whole, enormous dentice, a Mediterranean fish, poached and served with boiled potatoes, with excellent olive oil and freshly made mayonnaise to dress both. Dessert was semifreddo with almond praline and the most delicate imaginable cannoli.

We drank Rapitalà white wines throughout. Piano Maltese (Grillo and Catarratto, both indigenous Sicilian varieties) served as aperitif. Pleasing in itself, it was deepened and intensified by the slightly salted, slightly nutty panella, so that what on first sip had seemed somewhat one-dimensional showed itself as complex and very interesting indeed. With both the timballo and the fish we drank Casalj (Catarratto and Chardonnay, 70/30), a fuller-bodied white that played lean and muscular with the pasta, which highlighted its acidity, and rounder and softer with the dentice, which emphasized its fruit and balance. Neither of these wines had seen oak.

Laurent de la Gatinais enjoys his cannoli

By contrast, Cielo d’Alcamo (late-harvest Sauvignon and Catarratto), the dessert wine, had spent about 11 months in barrique. Drunk by itself, the wine showed primarily sweetness: I had to work hard to taste other elements in it. But with the semifreddo, it blossomed. Its acidity came up, its sugar subsided, and its delicacy, elegance, and complexity stepped to the fore, making it crystal clear why it has been taking prizes in Italy. Once again, the magic of food and wine matching.

Event 2 – A Lunch in New York

Also in November, the Wine Media Guild, which holds regular lunch meetings at Felidia Ristorante, invited owner Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe to present the wines of their Friuli estate. Those wines have been garnering awards in Italy almost since the estate’s inception 10 years ago, so that in itself was attractive. Moreover, the thought crossed several of our minds that, under those circumstances, we could hope for something quite exceptional from Felidia’s normally fine kitchen. We were happily right on both counts.

We tasted our way through the Bastianich line of Friulian varieties – Friulano (formerly Tocai, now because of EU bureaucracy renamed Friulano), Tocai Plus (a small vineyard, old-vine selection, bottled only in the very best years), Malvasia, and Sauvignon blanc. The last wine stood out for me because of its delightful coppery edge, which I think of as the distinctive gift of Friuli’s soils and microclimates.

Then we worked through a really interesting vertical of Bastianich Vespa Bianco (’01, ’02, ’04, ’06, and ’07). This blended wine represents the pre-WW II tradition of Friuli, when field mixes were the norm and monovarietal wines the exception. Vespa contains roughly 45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon, and 10% of the very local and lovely Picolit, and the blend really blends – no single variety dominates. It leads with a pretty floral, white-fruit aroma and follows up on the palate with an elegant medium body, intriguingly inflected with mineral and flint notes.

When the lunch is served, WMG members get to choose from among the tasted wines to drink with the food. Because of its complexity, Vespa was my choice to companion the first two courses, one a gorgeous octopus salad (the tender tentacles thinly sliced and arranged like a Byzantine mosaic on the plate, topped with slices of warm potato and onion), the second fresh ravioli stuffed with pecorino cheese and pears and dressed only with butter and a little cheese.

The first dish brought up beautifully the underlying fruit of the Vespa, giving it the slightest suggestion of sweetness that worked perfectly with the fleshy sweetness of the octopus. The ravioli, which were wonders of delicacy, worked in the opposite direction, emphasizing Vespa’s minerality and creating a delicious counterpoint of fruit and earth. With these dishes, the Vespa showed not only better but more than it did by itself – and that for me is what it’s all about.

Picking a wine that will enhance and be enhanced by the food it’s served with requires some thought, some experience, some experimentation. There is no magic formula, until you learn your own palate and gain a little knowledge of the way different foods and different wines interact. It’s not a mystery, but it’s not a slam-dunk either. In The Right Wine I tried to suggest some principles for matching food and wine for their mutual enhancement. If you find the whole subject intimidating you might want to take a look at what I say there. But essentially, the best teacher is good old trial and error. It may take a while to get the hang of it, but the practice doesn’t hurt at all.

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