Archive for the ‘Food & Wine Matching’ Category

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

Ave atque vale

A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

October 28, 2013

I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.

Modigliani

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It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.

Picasso

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For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.

So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)

Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)

I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.

???????????????????????????????FrascatiTasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.

All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.

So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

All Things Bright and Bubbly

December 28, 2012

I had been eagerly looking forward to this year’s New York Wine Press Champagne Gala at The Brasserie, in part because Luc Dimnet, the chef there, always prepares a fine lunch for us and in part because the featured bubblies this time would be vintage Champagnes. I expected that they would all be spectacular. Well, the lunch fully lived up to my expectations, as the menu suggests.

menu 2

But perhaps it was the memory of the very distinguished range of rosés that I had tasted at the WMG Champagne event ten days earlier, or maybe my palate was just off a bit, but for me some of this group of Champagnes seemed a little lackluster. Not that they were bad: far from it. Of the dozen bottles we tasted, all were enjoyable, and several considerably more than that. But most of them failed to offer the special magic that I look for in vintage Champagne, the combination of classic Champagne charm and the distinguishing inflection of a single, above-average vintage – that hard-to-define extra element that tells you simultaneously “Wow, this is a great Champagne” and “Wow, this is different.”

Ed McCarthy 2Here are all the wines we tasted, accompanied by the comments of the man who selected them, Ed McCarthy (for those who don’t know by now, Ed is the author of the deservedly much esteemed Champagne for Dummies).

“Vintage Champagne,” Ed said by way of preface, “is always rarer and better than non-vintage, because it is made in small quantities exclusively from the best wines of exceptional years. Probably less than 3% of all Champagne made is straight (i.e., not rosé, not blanc de blancs, not prestige cuvée) vintage Champagne.”

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Flight One
Gosset Excellence Brut NV
Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2004
Ferrari Perlé 2006 Brut

This was the aperitif flight, at least in theory the lightest and most delicate of the day’s Champagnes. They accompanied oysters and foie gras. Here’s Ed: “Gosset is a great small house. The Excellence, along with the Ferrari Perlé, is the least expensive Champagne we’ll taste today. Feuillatte always makes a lovely blanc de blancs, and 2004 is an excellent vintage.”

flight 1

I like the light aperitif style in Champagnes, so two of these wines – not vintage Champagnes at all – were among my favorite wines of the day. Gosset Excellence Brut is non-vintage, and Ferrari Perlé Brut 2006 is an Italian metodo classico sparkler, a blanc de blancs from what is probably Italy’s finest maker of champagne-style wines. Maybe price had something to do with that judgment, but I loved the classic, wheaty, toasty aroma of the Ferrari. And Gosset just makes great Champagnes, all up and down its line. Both these wines were able to stand out even among the day’s field of vintage sparklers.

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Flight Two
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Millésime 2004
Henriot Millésime 2005
G. H. Mumm Cuvée René Lalou Brut 1998

Ed again: “The Feuillate is mainly black grapes: 40% each of Pinot noir and meunier, and only 20% Chardonnay. Henriot is one of my favorite small houses. They’re known as a Chardonnay house, and this wine is 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot noir. The Mumm René Lalou is one of our few prestige cuvées today, as well as our oldest wine. Very approachable, very easy drinking: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir.”

I thought the Henriot showed excellent fruit. The René Lalou needed time to open in the glass and still seems to have years of life before it. All three wines, a little fuller-bodied than the first flight, matched beautifully with the moist, lightly smoked Arctic char.

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Flight Three
Laurent Perrier Millésime 2002
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2002
Gosset Grand Millésime Brut 2000

gosset 2Ed once more: “The Laurent Perrier follows a very typical formula for vintage Champagnes: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir. Very good price for a Champagne from a very great vintage (around $55). From the same fine 2002 vintage, the Mumm is blended of 50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot noir, and 15% Pinot meunier. The Gosset is fuller bodied than the other two, even though it is more than half Chardonnay. The 2000 is the youngest vintage of Gosset available in the United States.”

This flight was another step up in body and authority, and the rich poached lobster and the assertive mushroom crepes elicited their best qualities. I liked best the Moet & Chandon, which was simply a lovely wine, and the Gosset 2000, which had fine body coupled with real elegance.

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Flight Four
Louis Roederer Brut 2005
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2004
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999

pol roger 2Ed again: “Roederer is a fantastic house that makes big, full-bodied Champagnes, dominated by Pinot noir. This 2005 is 66% Pinot noir, 34% Chardonnay. Perrier-Jouet’s prestige cuvée Belle Epoque is usually placed among the lighter-bodied, more elegant styles of Champagne (P-J is known as a Chardonnay house), but in 2004 it seems to have more authority: 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir, 5% meunier. Finally, another great prestige cuvée, Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill. Pol Roger is thought of as a Pinot noir house – bigger, fuller-bodied wines – and it’s estimated that Sir Winston Churchill is about 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay. That’s a guess, because Pol Roger doesn’t give out that information. Probably the most expensive Champagne we have here today.”

The delicious braised veal cheeks of this course succeeded even better than the fish dishes in showing the wines to advantage – a very pleasant surprise. I liked best the Roederer, which was in a style similar to that of the preceding flight’s Gosset, and the Sir Winston Churchill, a very fine wine, although not from the top tier of vintages, and probably – Ed’s estimate – not going to be terribly long-lived.

new year bells

That brings to a conclusion not only the NYWP luncheon but also calendar year 2012. To all, best wishes for a happy, prosperous, gentle new year, and to all, a good night: Ubriaco is going to settle in for a long winter’s nap. My next post will appear around the middle of January.

“Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce”

May 25, 2012

A special announcement this week: After a 20-odd-year lapse, Diane and I have published a new cookbook. More specifically, a mini ebook, Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce, a collection of 10 tomato-based sauces for pasta, published by Hang Time Press and available on Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iTunes. In addition to the recipes, the book has all sorts of useful prefatory information and contains wine recommendations for each recipe, so at $2.99 it’s a genuine bargain. Those of you unequipped with Kindle or Nook can download the software to your own computer, free, from the sites.

Here’s an example of that prefatory prose: the headnote to our recipe for Ziti with Fennel Tomato Sauce:

We first met this sauce 10 years ago, during a memorable visit to the dean of Campanian winemakers, Antonio Mastroberardino. For several generations the Mastroberardino family have been making – and in some cases, saving from extinction – the traditional wines of Naples. At that time, they had recently been charged by the Italian government with the prestigious task of replanting vineyards in the ruins of Pompeii with as close as they could get to the ancient Roman grape varieties, using the ancient Roman forms of cultivation.

We were given a private tour of this fascinating task – imagine the contrast of new vine shoots within 2,000-year-old Roman brick walls – before heading inland to the hills that hold Mastro’s main vineyards and winery. There we had an astounding lunch of local specialties, catered by the chef of Ristorante Il Gastronomo. We remember vividly our first encounter with buffalo-milk ricotta, a flavor impossible to describe or match. After several more excellent antipasti, this pasta appeared. Its lively fennel scent immediately focused our attention and from the first taste we were addicted. That sauce was probably made with wild fennel to attain its special pungency, and if you’re lucky enough to get wild fennel by all means use it here. We’ve done our best with the farm-grown version to recreate the pleasure of this simple, elegant dish.

Wine: This nubbly, genteelly flavored dish wants a mellow sort of wine, something on the soft side. We like Dolcetto with it, but there’s no reason a less-than-powerhouse Merlot shouldn’t work well too, or even a Cabernet franc, whether from the Loire, Friuli or California. If you want regional fidelity, try a youngish (three- to five-year old) Aglianico, or – simpler yet – a Lacryma Christi rosso.

And here’s a link to the whole recipe, if you’re curious about it.

We had a really good time creating the book: choosing our recipes, fine-tuning them, retesting them — especially the retesting, when I got to try out wines to recommend for each dish.

The Authors at Work in the Test Laboratory

We have no illusions that we will make our fortune – or fame – with Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce. We’d like the venture to be successful enough to warrant publishing some more little ebooks, because we’ve been accumulating recipes for years now and we think a good number of them deserve to be better known. So we hope that many of our blog readers will try the book, make its recipes, and be enthusiastic enough to write a review for Amazon or B&N. All praise, extravagant or modest, will be gratefully accepted.

But mostly we hope you’ll like the recipes and make them often. They’re easy enough and flavorful enough to supplement or even replace that same old spaghetti sauce you may have been making all these years.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

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As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

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The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

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Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!

Do Try This at Home

April 18, 2011

Recently, Diane and I had some friends over for dinner. This isn’t an unusual event for us: We both like to cook, and we like to share our best wines with people who’ll enjoy and appreciate them.

Also, truth to tell, we don’t enjoy restaurant dining very much anymore. That’s for a number of reasons. The chief one is noise: The number of restaurants where it’s impossible to have a civilized conversation over dinner increases every year, and conversation is one of the pleasures of a good meal. Diane and I have simply stopped going to several places whose food we like very much, because we had to lean across the table and shout in each other’s face to be heard.

Prices, of course, are another factor: The number of restaurants where the cost of dinner for two represents a respectable fraction of one’s weekly income has also increased dramatically – especially if one likes wine, since restaurants continue their unenlightened policy of rack-rent mark-ups on wines.

The third major reason is the food itself: In many places, you can’t get a dish that tastes of a recognizable ingredient because there are so many of them, subjected to so much chef’s-fantasy tweaking. More and more, we find ourselves appreciating the classic French cuisine bourgeoise (which you can hardly find anywhere) and the Italian ideal of excellent prima materia treated respectfully and allowed to taste of itself. So we shop carefully and cook simply – and often, since eating is a pleasure we like to indulge on a regular basis. I read somewhere that it’s good for you.

Which loops me back to my starting point, with this further note: Another reason we like to dine at home is the added fun of matching our wines to our food – and the other way around too.  So we asked some friends to a simple dinner that would accompany a few enjoyable wines. Here’s the menu we devised:

Gougères, mixed olives
Pommery Brut nv

Salad of Celery, Dates, Almonds and Pecorino
Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino 2007

Cannelloni alla Napoletana
Marisa Cuomo Costa Amalfitana Furore 2004

Casserole-roasted Stuffed Leg of Lamb; Green Beans and Mushrooms
Chateau Talbot 1998, in magnum

Cheeses:  Brebis; Robiola; Gorgonzola cremificata

Almost flour-less Chocolate Cake, Arte del Gelato Vaniglia di Madagascar
Ceretto San Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv

Espresso; grappa

Almost all the dishes could be prepared before guests arrived and only needed to be warmed, leaving us both free to enjoy our company. As it turned out, we didn’t use the Mastro Fiano: Everyone was content to continue with the Champagne through the light, palate-refreshing antipasto salad. The marriage of the cannelloni (recipe from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana) and the Furore was truly made in heaven; since both the dish and the wine originate in seaside Campania, they can be said to have been childhood sweethearts who grew up together. The Marisa Cuomo estate deserves to be much better known: the quality of its wines is always excellent, and the Furore – a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso – is particularly fine.

The main course lamb Diane has described on her own blog, so I’ll content myself with saying that it was rich and succulent. The pairing of almost any lamb dish with almost any Cabernet-based wine is a no-brainer, and the Talbot – that rarity in Bordeaux, a still-moderately-priced classified growth – performed admirably both with the meat and the subsequent cheese course. It also followed very nicely on the elegance and understated power of the Furore. Neither of these was an in-your-face wine: they were chosen for restraint and complexity and a willingness to play well with others. In my opinion, nothing destroys the harmony of a meal more thoroughly than a sandbox bully of a wine, a big fruit bomb that won’t let you taste anything but itself. No danger of that with either Furore or Talbot.

From that complexity we came down lightly, with a not-very-sweet but richly chocolaty cake and a dab of ice cream, accompanied by the gentlest of dessert wines, a Moscato d’Asti from Ceretto, a Piedmont master – a kiss-on-the-cheek of a wine, the perfect finish for a comfortable dinner.

Next morning, finishing the clean-up (it was a two-dishwasher-load dinner), we amused ourselves by trying to calculate what such a meal would have cost us in a restaurant, (if we could get it), but gave up in despair of the convolute math calculations involved. Suffice it to say that the whole evening was why we cook in the first place, and why we buy young wines and store them, even if our “cellar” is far from ideal. If you love the sensations provided by mature wines, it’s the only sensible course of action. Unless of course you have unlimited wealth – in which case you don’t need a cellar, or even a kitchen: you can buy your meal, and maybe even the quiet to enjoy it in.

The Triumph of Age and Cunning

November 22, 2010

Tasting new releases, as anyone in the wine business knows, is a rarely a pleasure – more of a necessary evil. Especially in these days of intense market pressure, most new releases aren’t ready to drink, and the best of them – wines of texture and complexity – may be years or even decades from their peaks. But science is a cruel mistress, and to keep abreast of the flow, to have an empirical base from which to make judgments and reasonable predictions, a writer has to taste a lot of young wines – many hundreds of them, every season.

That’s why it’s crucially important to drink mature wines at every available opportunity, to remind yourself of what this whole process is all about. It sure isn’t about discriminating between an 88.5 and an 89 point infant Cabernet, whatever the blurbsters may lead one to think: It’s about sipping nectar and being transported, not spitting raw grape juice until they carry you out.

So my cunning plan (as Black Adder used to say) for avoiding that fate consists  partially of trotting out to Brooklyn for dinner at Tommaso’s, which is one of the few places in New York where I can afford to order older wines. (During a recent visit for his seasonal-special white truffle dinner, Diane and I drank his last bottle of Dessilani’s lovely 1970 Gattinara, a dream of silk and subtlety.)  But mostly it consists of raiding my own oldest stock and serving selected bottles to friends who appreciate them as much as I do, partnered with the fine dinners orchestrated by my partner Diane. This fall, we did two such morale-and-palate-saving evenings, extravaganzas approaching caloric megadeath (you can always eat salad tomorrow, or all next week if it comes to that).  The food was wonderful, and the wines played up to the dishes.

For the first dinner, Diane prepared a Piemontese feast for four friends – Charles and Michele, Ernie and Louise – who were about to visit that white-truffle-blest paradise. We didn’t have any truffles, but we tried to give them dishes that would ring true to what lay in store in Italy. I pulled out of my “cellar” (euphemism or metaphor at best) Deutz Champagne brut nv, 1989 Prunotto Barbaresco Montestefano, 1989 Vietti Barolo Lazzarito, 1982 Ceretto Barbaresco Bricco Asili, and Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Ernie, bless his soul, provided a 1990 Aldo Conterno Barolo Gran Bussia and a 1958 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino.

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All the wines were in excellent condition – not a cork problem or bad bottle in the lot – and each showed the elegant depth and heft and complexity that uniquely belongs to mature Nebbiolo of fine vintages. We didn’t drink them in order of age but as I felt their body and power and relative vigor or fragility matched with the food.

The Champagne accompanied some light hors d’oeuvre (toasted hazelnuts, some salume) and continued with an antipasto of fennel spears wrapped with prosciutto and roasted.

Tagliarini with a sauce of wild mushrooms and veal called for first the 1990 Gran Bussia, then the lovely ‘58 Monfortino, both of which provided the elegance and restraint that sauce wanted. The two ‘89s, both big-bodied and vigorous wines, and the 1982 Bricco Asili, fully evolved and very complex, accompanied roasted squabs stuffed with chestnut puree and afterward a plate of cheeses.  Finally the light and charming Moscato, a refreshing palate-cleanser after all that impressive Nebbiolo, paired beautifully with a pear timballo topped with mascarpone cream.

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Opinions were pretty evenly divided as to whether the wine of the day was the ’89 Vietti for its concentrated power or the ’58 Conterno for its elegance, but the entire group of wines counted as champions. Truth to tell, it was really one wine too many. They were all so good that they began to interfere with each other. They gave my palate and aging brain almost too much to deal with. I think less would have been more: One fewer bottle – though which of those gems I would omit I can’t imagine – would have focused us better.  A valuable lesson, that, and one I will bear in mind in the future.

In fact, I did bear it in mind for our second dinner. This was less tightly regional, though largely Italian again, for four Italophile friends, Livio and Betty, and John and Vicky.

Here are the wines for that dinner: Roederer Estate Brut nv; 1997 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva; 1982 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; 1991 Serego Alighieri Amarone Vaio Armaron; Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Unquestionably, fewer wines worked better: the matches of food and wine just sang.

Once again our sparkling wine went from hors d’oeuvre through roasted prosciutto-wrapped fennel (when you find a good thing, stick with it). The characteristically Rufina earthiness of the Nipozzano played beautifully with bucatini all’amatriciana (made with la vera cosa, real Italian guanciale). The ’82 Brunello – in that vintage, this wine would have been made from Banfi’s oldest vines, the former Poggio alle Mura vineyards – showed its lively Sangiovese acidity and freshness with a pork loin roast that had been lacquered with Dijon mustard, brown sugar, and chopped pistachios.  At the same time, the wine displayed its velvety Sangiovese tannins with the vegetal bite of the contorno of braised Swiss chard and mustard greens.

With the cheese, that glorious Amarone gave us not an aria but the whole opera, opening different facets of its enormously complex personality with the different cheeses – Gorgonzola dolce, Chabichou, Brunet, aged Gouda. This wine demonstrated conclusively what nonsense is the belief that Amarone can’t accompany a meal. Nothing could have completed the substantial courses of this dinner better.

Finally, the same lovely Moscato as in the previous dinner worked just as effectively with a featherweight pumpkin chiffon pie.

Readers of my earlier rants know just how deeply I love older wines. Dinners like this are the reasons why. If anyone thinks it’s too much trouble to lay wines down and wait for them, I have only one thing to say to you: You’re wrong. It is hardly any trouble at all: the biggest difficulty is to keep your hands off them long enough for the wines to evolve.  The times we live in aren’t conducive to patience. But it is worth acquiring the discipline, because the pleasures properly aged wines afford – as I’ve tried to give some inkling above – are of a wholly different order from, and light years beyond, the best that young wines can do.

The Mating Game

October 25, 2010

To judge from numerous magazine and newspaper articles, especially the Q&A features, I’d guess that about the most nerve-wracking decision many people face is choosing a wine to go with their dinner. Or a dinner to go with their wine: Which should get priority is often part of the agonizing. Needless to say, if that’s your major worry, your life is in pretty good shape. No such decision is life-threatening, and most are not really difficult. Common sense will carry you a long way: Zinfandel can be fine with steak, but white Zinfandel ought to be a no-no for any but the most pepsicolated palate.

Not that there can’t be intricacies involved in your choices, especially in a restaurant situation where, for instance, you find yourself having to select a single wine to accompany four different entrees chosen by four distinct palates. And it’s not all that obvious either if what you’re looking for isn’t simply a comfortable match of wine and food but a really live mating, where the wine will enhance the food and the food make the wine sing. I long ago tried to deal in fairly elaborate ways with those kinds of complications in The Right Wine, a book I think still has a lot of good information and some even better theory. (By the time I’d written it twice, I’d finally learned enough to start it.) But in most everyday situations, wine and food matchings can come pretty close to no-brainers.

Here’s a case in point: Diane and I recently joined six other curious friends for a wine and dim sum lunch at Oriental Garden on Elizabeth Street. Each person brought a bottle of wine, and we all tasted all the wines with a procession of dim sum.

All photos courtesy of Charles Scicolone

Here are the wines:

  • 2006 Leeuwin Estate Riesling, Margaret River, Australia
  • 2005 Bott-Geyl Pinot d’Alsace, France
  • 2004 Chateau Carbonnieux Blanc, Bordeaux
  • 2009 Anthony Road Finger Lakes Dry Rosé of Cabernet franc, NY State
  • 2000 Logan Monterey Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, California
  • 2006 Tramonti Rosso Costa d’Amalfi, Giuseppe Apicella, Italy
  • 1989 Pothier-Rieusset Pommard Premier Cru, Burgundy
  • 1994 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany

That’s a pretty eclectic group of kinds and vintages, with a fairly evident leaning toward older, more mature wines. Despite what you might think, the dim sum were less varied. They presented us with non-western spicings and flavors, to be sure, but for the most part they showed a substantial core of similarities. Except for one interlude of chicken feet, insisted on by some of us eat-the-whole-animal types, most of the dim sum consisted of minced vegetables with shrimp or pork or chicken in noodle dough wrappers, a few of them fried but most steamed. Condiments were simple, chiefly a sharp mustard and a lively chili paste. For all the apparent variety of the food, each succeeding dumpling presented almost exactly the same set of flavors as the ones that preceded it: mild Asian spicing carried by an equally mild forcemeat and noodle dough vehicle.

The wines responded to that combination pretty much as even a rudimentary familiarity with their different kinds would lead you to expect. The three youngest whites – the Australian Riesling, the Alsace blend of white Pinots, the white Graves (Sauvignon and some Semillon) – all worked well with the whole battery of dim sum, with no marked differences in interaction with any. This was because all the wines possessed a good amount of acidity, in addition to fairly assertive fruit and mineral flavors, so they weren’t cowed by any of the spices, nor – being nicely balanced – did they overpower any of the subtler flavors.

The New York rosé interacted very well indeed – perhaps the best of all the wines – with the various dishes, showing the greatest responsiveness to their differences. Rosés are rarely among my favorite wines, but this one, with its nice Cabernet franc fruit and its good Finger Lakes acidity, performed quite handsomely. The combination of slightly more intense flavor from the red grapes and the high acidity from the cool climate made it a fine companion to the near-assertiveness of the Chinese flavors.

The reds, almost predictably, did not do as well. The California Pinot noir and the Amalfi red didn’t seem very interesting in this context – just palatal lubricants, not integral parts of the meal. That was partially true too of the 20-year-old Pommard: it had as little as possible to do with the dishes, standing apart from them in its elegance – a bit light-bodied, perhaps beginning to fade a bit, but a lovely wine in a setting that neither enhanced it nor detracted from it. The now-fading fad for red wines with fish usually focused on Pinot noir as the acceptable match, but I’ve always felt that was a shotgun wedding, and this dim sum/red wine stand-off seems the same sort of marriage.

The surprise to me, in the whole lunch, was how well the 15-year-old Mosel behaved with everything. Normally, because of its sweetness I would serve an auslese with or as dessert, and I wasn’t sure how it would match with these dishes. No need to worry: Most of the dim sum activated its acidity, making it taste younger and fresher than its age, and when they were generously laced with the chili paste, its still abundant fruit-and-mineral flavors came quite delightfully to the fore. It is simply amazing how enough acidity can make the most improbable wines work with the most unlikely dishes.

So the first and most important thing to think about when matching food and wine is whether the wines you’re considering have enough acidity for the job before them. Heavily tannic wines won’t cut it with dim sum or anything like them; the tannins will make the wine seem coarse and even flabby. Acidity, on the other hand, keeps them live and supple, able to adapt to different components of the food.

The second important thing is that you understand exactly what the food is. Don’t be put off by apparent exoticism or elaborate menu prose, especially in these days of californicated cooking: Shallots and cilantro and two colors of peppercorn in a goat-cheese mornay sauce over a shell steak are still going to leave you dealing with the basic, dominant flavor of good beef (unless something has gone very, very wrong in the kitchen – in which case, why are you eating there anyhow?). Once you understand the basic “color range” of the foods, that will point you to at least the broad kinds of wines you want to work with.

I’ll talk more about wine and food matching from time to time in future posts.

Eating Sicily: The Planeta Family and the Terre Sicane

March 30, 2010

For a few days before I wandered into the tundra of snow in Asti last month, I participated in Sicilia en Primeur, an annual presentation of new releases by just under 40 top-line Sicilian estates. Not to be outdone in late-winter dreariness, Sicily offered rain for most of my stay – but in contrast to the downside surprises that Asti had in wait, Sicilian producers had mostly very welcome news in store.

For my first night in the three-cornered isle, I and several other lucky journalists were billeted at La Foresteria, the Planeta family’s new, up-scale agriturismo, cooking school, resort, and what-have-you. It’s a handsome place, the buildings and décor looking very American-Southwest – except that from my very comfortable bedroom’s windows I looked out over, first, a manicured herb garden, then a phalanx of vines marching almost to the horizon, where they melted into low hills, beyond which lay the Mediterranean.

A guy could get used to this, I thought – an idea that repeated itself often in the happy recesses of my brain during that evening’s elegant and delicious dinner.

The Planeta family — father Diego, daughter and son Francesca and Santi and their cousin Alessio — have played major roles in Sicilian wine for some time now.  Diego has been for decades the head of Settesoli, Sicily’s largest cooperative, an enterprise that he has guided to a level of winemaking and quality of production that is rivalled only by the Produttori di Barbaresco in Piedmont and one or two coops in Alto Adige.  The three representatives of the younger generation — with copious advice from Diego — have made the Planeta winery a pace-setter for Sicily as a whole and certainly the dominant force in their home area, the Terre Sicane in the province of Agrigento.  

FRANCESCA PLANETA. Photo by Charles Scicolone

Francesca Planeta presided over what was simultaneously a welcome to Sicily and an introduction to that territory, a swatch of southwest Sicily seeking to establish its own identity as a wine region as distinctive as the already well-known Etna region. Several of the area’s key producers were present, and each course of the dinner featured one of their wines, which turned out to be a pleasant way indeed to imbibe one’s geography lesson. Note: all the producers mentioned here have American importers.

The dinner itself was loosely modeled on the famous banquet in de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and indeed included a version of the famous timballo. If you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably seen the movie, or at least know of the timballo from another movie, The Big Night. But I’m getting ahead of myself: canapés first. These were various tasty little crostini – I remember a vegetable one with a purée of pecorino and another with superb fresh anchovies – accompanied by a wine from each of the five producers present: A Rosato from Barbera (Nero d’Avola), a Rosé from Planeta (Syrah!), Polena from Donnafugata (Catarratto and Viognier), Grillo from Feudo Arancia, and Mandrarossa Grecanico from Settesoli. I managed small tastes of all five and liked them all – fully dry, light-bodied, fresh (even the Syrah): ideal sipping wines, perfect aperitivi.

The first seated course was some of the freshest, tenderest calamari I have ever eaten, sautéed and served with fresh young fava beans. Food doesn’t get any simpler or better than this, and Barbera’s Dietro Le Case Inzolia 2008 matched beautifully with it: medium-bodied and bracing, with wonderful Inzolia character and intensity.

Then came a slice of roasted mackerel on a bed of chickpea purée: again, the freshest, best quality ingredients prepared with great respect (I cannot say enough for the seafood in Sicily: it is amazing everywhere you go). This was accompanied by Planeta’s 2008 Chardonnay, a wine that surprised me by its elegance and character. I say “surprised” because I used to think of Planeta’s wines as heavily oaky. If that was true once, it certainly is no more: I later tasted through most of the line, and I found the same elegance and restraint in evidence throughout.

The next course was the moment of the timballo, which was first shown in its gleaming brown crust before being cut into and served, its filling of pasta and brown sauce and various unnamable parts of animals (sweetbreads and cockscombs are the most honorable) filling the room with savory aromas. There were no squeamish diners in sight, and forks were wielded with almost scary speed. This was a great dish, and a privilege to have eaten. With it we drank Settesoli’s 2006 Benedicò (Nero d’Avola/Merlot 60/40), which showed itself very soft and accommodating to the restrained richness of the timballo.

We all thought we had eaten enough already, but the subsequent roasted leg of lamb, surrounded by sautéed artichokes and verdure selvatiche changed everybody’s minds. The meat was tender and moist, the vegetables at once soft and assertive. Nobody could really tell what sort of green our wild green was: best guess was some sort of escarole. This dish partnered with Donnafugata’s 2003 Tancredi (Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon), which I found a touch too assertive for the delicacy of the young lamb: This is a wine that needs to be paired with stronger flavors.

The cheese course, accompanied by a sauce made from dried figs and a confit of cherry tomatoes, presented quite a challenge for any wine. Feudo Arancio’s 2006 Hedonis (Nero d’Avola/Syrah, 70/30) almost handled it: the spiciness of the Syrah complemented the condiments nicely, and the Nero d’Avola component responded well to the cheese, but it all never quite completely meshed. I love Nero d’Avola: it’s a great grape in itself and lends itself well to blends, but sometimes I think Sicilians ask too much of it.

At the dinner table

Finally, dessert: Minni di Virgini and Granita d’arancia – the latter self-explanatory, the former a one-time specialty of the convents, a filled pastry modeled on the Virgin’s breasts. Titillating, you might say. With it we had our choice of Donnafugata’s superb Ben Ryé, a standard-setting 2005 passito from the island of Pantelleria; or Feudo Arancia’s 2007 passito Hekate; or Planeta’s 2008 Passito di Noto; or Barbera’s 2008 passito Albamarina (made from Catarratto rather than Moscato: different and very pleasing).

After all that, we just managed to stagger off to bed, theoretically to rise early and start “seriously” tasting some wines. And what had we just been doing? Playing tiddlywinks?

The saga continues next post.