Archive for the ‘Food & Wine Matching’ Category

I’m sure that everyone reading this post has encountered their share of simply impossible wine lists. The only surprise about them is that they are so numerous: I would have hoped that in these days of much expanded wine consciousness, simple, decent, appropriate wine lists would be everywhere. But no: bad lists are multiplying like Orcs in the Misty Mountains.

Some, of course, are preposterous because of price: We all know the scandal of American restaurant wine markups. Maybe even worse are those impossibly large, multinational lists that would require an hour to read through and would leave casual wine drinkers reeling in confusion and indecision. Maybe this flatters the restaurateur’s ego, but it’s one sure way to convince a lot of restaurant diners that wine just isn’t for them.

There is also the annoying list that never changes, and seems well adapted to the particular restaurant – except for the fact that the wines you would most want with its food are never available, although they are always listed. That really irks me. But of all the ways of screwing up a wine list,  the ones that bother me most are those that make the fundamental, unforgivable mistake of being inappropriate to the menu they are supposed to complement.

I encountered such a list during a recent flight from the city for some fresh air and quiet birding at Cape May, along the Jersey Shore. It jumpstarted this tirade.

One of the additional pleasures of Cape May is its abundance of fresh seafood, always a welcome closing to a day of walking in the fresh air and stalking the wily whimbrel. The biggest and best seafood restaurant in town always has a nice assortment of oysters, clams, and mussels; shrimp, scallops, and lobsters; and whatever fin fish are in season – as well as the rarely encountered snapper soup – good eating on fresh, local seafood simply prepared.

Oysters, soft-shell crabs, sea scallops

This establishment does a thriving business all year round, so you would quite reasonably expect it to have a strong white wine list, wouldn’t you? Ha! To borrow an ancient Sid Caesar line, I laugh on your nose.

The guilty party sports an extensive seafood menu, with a mere two steaks and two chicken dishes as its only regular non-seafood items. Nevertheless, its red wine list (mostly California Cabernet) is fully as long as its white list, which is just plain silly. That white wine list, in its entirety, consists of:

  • 4 California Sauvignon blancs
  • 6 (or is it 8? I’m working from memory) California Chardonnays
  • 1 sweet German Riesling
  • 1 Cavit Pinot grigio.

That comes to, in fact, just four white wine choices, two of which are not well suited to anything on the menu. Not a Chablis or a white Burgundy or even a simple Muscadet in sight. No Alsace or Rhône whites, no Bordeaux whites.

I won’t even mention the array of Italian white wines that are terrific companions to seafood that not only do not appear on the list but whose very names seem to be totally unknown to the staff. I know because I’ve asked. And the house will not allow you to bring your own bottle. This goes beyond silly and into uncivilized.

This is a lazy list – probably the wines of one distributor, or even of one glib salesperson. This simplifies the restaurateur’s life but does nothing for his clients. It’s not as if a restaurateur had to invest a fortune to create a competent list, especially for a seafood house, where the primary emphasis ought always to be white wines.

Here, for example, is a very concise list from Cull & Pistol, an unpretentious (especially for NYC) seafood restaurant attached to the fish store inside the Chelsea Market:

Now, that is not a thrilling list, but it is a well chosen one in that it covers the bases. The wines are all appropriate to accompany seafood, and they offer genuine geographic and varietal diversity. A California version of Muscadet, which is a classic companion to shellfish. A Loire Sauvignon blanc, which matches well with all sorts of fin fish. A crisp Spanish Albariño, which will do well with any seafood. A New York State dry Riesling, almost as versatile. An interesting Italian choice, a Sicilian Carricante, which should love lobster and crab. A good Chenin blanc, fine for fin fish. And to top the list, a Premier cru Chablis, which will match well with almost anything on the menu.

The most exigent wine bibber – me, for instance – can find several drinkable bottles here to complement his oysters and crab. Even if I were perverse enough to want a red wine, the modest pair that Cull & Pistol offers will work: a decent Beaujolais, and a New Zealand Pinot noir carry enough acidity to make them compatible with many seafood dishes. And these wines are all being offered at – for NYC – quite reasonable prices: most are $60 a bottle or less. Only the Burgundy tops that: The Chablis costs $84.

As I said, these selections aren’t thrilling, but they work, and they offer nice variety in a short list. Somebody gave some thought to putting this list together. In a wine-conscious town like New York, diners will notice that, and be grateful. I think they would on the Jersey Shore too.


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Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.


Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.


To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.


Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.


With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.


The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

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For all regular newspaper and magazine columnists, a big feature about white and rosé wines for summer comes up routinely about this time of year. I always found such a story, when I was obliged to churn it out, burdensome and boring – and also misleading. What’s so different about the white wines one drinks in hot weather that marks them off from the whites one drinks all year round? And I think there is an underlying assumption here, that when the temperature rises one simply stops drinking red wine. This one doesn’t, especially not in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning.

Now, I grant that one’s eating habits change in summer – though even that is less so than ever, because of that same ubiquitous air conditioning. But they do change – more fresh fruits and vegetables, smaller, lighter meat portions, maybe more fresh fish, and so on. With those changes, the wines you drink should alter to maintain a pleasing match. So, for reasons of compatibility rather than temperature, you will probably move away from big, high-alcohol red wines and drink more light, modest-alcohol whites: that’s only common sense.

I guess the problem is that when it comes to wine, otherwise competent people lose all their common sense. Apparently, matching wine with food can come near to provoking a nervous breakdown, to judge from the number of crisis-toned articles devoted to the issue.

That, for example, was the premise of a recent big spread in the New York Times that tried hard to reassure the nervous that they could deal with this agonizing set of decisions. While I understand that Eric Asimov (a writer whose judgment and palate I respect) was trying to remove roadblocks to enjoying wine for many of his readers, I can’t help but feel that in the process he oversimplified somewhat.

I thoroughly agree that people shouldn’t worry about any so-called rules and may drink whatever they like, but I am very far from thinking that procedure will very often give you the best flavor combination of your wine and food. If maximizing your dining/drinking pleasure is what you’re after, you’re going to have to give your dinner wine a little more thought than by simply reaching for another bottle of old faithful or by making trial-and-error selections.

There most definitely are sound and useful principles that will help you make good choices. Asimov goes into some of these; I wish he had done so more forcefully. Most are – once again – common sense.

  • Balance fatty foods with acidic wines, which will cut through the fats and clean your palate.
  • Avoid heavily tannic wines with most foods: The tannins will obscure almost any other taste sensation.
  • And remember: Dinners are like boxing bouts. Don’t put lightweights against heavyweights. Balance is crucial if you don’t want either your wine or your food to wipe out its match mate.

None of these ideas is particularly esoteric, and they can help you with the kind of wine choices you make at any time of year, spring, summer, fall, or winter. No season holds any special problems, except for editors who want a “timely” story, whether it’s new or useful or not.

There are more such almost self-evident notions that will help guide your wine and food pairings. They’re not rules, just useful guidelines – a few principles to keep in mind while you’re thinking about whether your chicken cacciatore will match better with a Soave or a Chianti Classico. I even wrote a book about this “problem” many years ago, if anyone is curious. The Right Wine, I ironically called it (which taught me never to trust a reviewer’s ability to grasp irony.)

The Right Wine was a project that taught me a great deal about matching food and wine, and I’ve been working on that skill ever since. I’m happy to say that on looking at the book recently, I’ve found its principles still valid and useful, even if some of the particular examples it treats are dated. These handy little white and red wine wheels that I designed to illustrate some of those principles will give you a sense of what’s in it. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Neat, huh? As one of my favorite authors immodestly said on rereading his earlier works, “Gad, what a genius I had then!”

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It’s fascinating how things converge. I’m reading two very different books, written by people who couldn’t be more different, with very different aims and styles, and yet both arrive at a point of agreement – that of the inability of language to express what exactly it is we taste and experience when we drink wine. Needless to say, for me as a wine writer this subject is endlessly fascinating, but I’d guess it’s also of serious interest to anyone who enjoys wine and has ever tried to explain to civilians what it’s all about.

One book is Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, her account of how wanting to find out if there was any real content behind wine pros’ descriptions of wines led her from an established career in journalism to one as a sommelier at Paul Grieco’s Terroir, a New York City wine bar/bistro/restaurant.

The other book is Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, the poet and novelist’s posthumously collected writings on eating, drinking, excess, his love of hunting and fishing, his dislike of Dubya, his dislike of book tours, his fondness for Bandol, and just about anything else that occurred to him.

Both are well written – Bosker’s straightforward, rigorous, disciplined, Harrison’s the opposite: like his novels often lyrical and moving but equally often unorganized and self-indulgent. The style really is the man, and apparently in this case the woman too. (Disclosure: I knew Harrison very briefly, decades ago, when he was a young poet who had not yet published a novel. I liked him. I have never met Bosker, but I suspect I’d like her too.)

Bosker’s book is top-flight journalism, an almost-relentless investigation – by way of her rigorous preparation for the Master Sommelier’s Exam – of the folklore and science of wine knowledge and wine tasting. She trains herself to discern different scents (yes, you can do it, with sufficient devotion) and tastes. She travels to UC Davis to find out what is known scientifically of the different chemicals that contribute to wine aromas and tastes and how we perceive them. She even has a brain scan to find out how a professional’s brain responds to a wine as opposed to the way a civilian’s does.

And all the time she’s doing these things, she’s tasting wines – which doesn’t mean just drinking them. It means paying attention to what is in one’s mouth. Just as any athlete’s training of his or her set of necessary skills makes them better, stronger, and surer, attentive tasting makes one taste more – more elements, more complexly, more intensely. As she puts it at the close of her book, “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

I felt a great personal vindication in reading Cork Dork, because that is exactly what I (and not just I, to be sure) have been preaching for lo! these many decades. You taste only with your own mouth, so pay attention to what’s going on in it. And certainly do so with gusto.

Harrison arrives at that knowledge intuitively, not through methodical training or rigorous investigation but by immersion, by diving into the sheer pleasure of the moment and relishing every scent and taste that a meal and its wines allow. He is as suspicious of wine criticism as he is of art criticism, and very sensitive to the way wine is written about.

There are marvelous semi-comic aspects to the problem. Wine magazines and the wine press in general offer tip sheets like those you buy when entering the grounds of Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita. . . . The furthest thing from my own aesthetic judgments is the world of numbers, let alone price. I am admittedly an outsider, a mere consumer, but wine simply can’t be graded like a teacher grades term papers.

Need I say, Amen!

Harrison’s treatment of wine is anything but systematic. Most of his comments occur in the course of accounts of meals that range from wonderful to awesomely gluttonous. Probably the best way to give the flavor of his remarks is simply to quote a few:

We drink wine with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary…. I have it on good authority that both Dionysius and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white.

I’m fairly sure that the numerical system of rating wines was not devised as a marketing tool but that’s what it has become. The truly great Russian writer Dostoevsky insisted, ‘Two plus two is the beginning of death.’ Aesthetic values are decidedly non-digital and can no more be fairly applied to wines than to a thousand or so ‘top’ books a year.

How can humble grapes produce something so delicious with the cooperation of human alchemy? Drinking wine is beyond the vagaries of language and numbers and finds its essence, like sex, totally within the realm of the senses.

Those last two sentences, intellectual and at the same time repudiating the intellect, are pure Harrison, apparently miles away from Bosker’s rigorous intellectual pursuit of the what-ness of wine, but that too led her past the mind and into the intense sensuality of the wine experience. Fascinating, isn’t it?

I think I’ll give Harrison the last word here, because he has a single sentence that sums up a lot of what all we winos feel: “Wine crawls in the window of your life and never leaves.” It’s a good idea to always leave a window open.






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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.

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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.


???????????????????????????????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.



???????????????????????????????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.


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.


???????????????????????????????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.

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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.



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.



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.

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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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.

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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.

 * * *

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.

 * * *

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.

* * *

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!

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