Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Breathing Exercises

August 22, 2011

I don’t know whether it’s seasonal, or cyclical, or a function of the heat, but lately I’ve been reading more and hearing more about “breathing” wines than I have in a long time. Whatever: If this is a sign of a shift from wines of in-your-face simplicity to wines of some complexity, I’m all for it.

Breathing, of course, is not a yoga exercise for wines or winedrinkers, but the process of opening a bottle and allowing the wine to oxygenate – breathe – for a period of time. What gets people all worked up and confused are the numerous complications that seemingly simple exercise entails: first, the question of whether and/or which wines should be allowed to breathe at all, then whether they should be allowed to breathe in the bottle or should be decanted, and then for how long.

Some people even pour the wine back and forth between decanter and bottle a few times. I’m not kidding: The late Martin Gersh, for some years a wine writer for Vogue, was a serious advocate of that procedure. He argued that the accelerated exposure to oxygen it afforded allowed wines to open more rapidly and improved their flavor.

Everyone, I think, would agree that the whole point of letting a wine breathe is to improve its flavor by allowing it to “open.” And most winedrinkers know what “closed” means in a wine: You pull the cork, you sniff, you sniff again, you sip, and you’re getting nothing, or next to nothing, in nose and mouth. But what people mean by “open” is not always clear.

I’ve generally found two schools of thought. One says you breathe wines in order to allow them to show their mature flavor: The exposure to oxygen is a super-speed version of what happens over years in the bottle, with the slow penetration of oxygen through the cork. This was Martin Gersh’s theory, that he could by rapid but controlled oxygenation effectually advance the age of a young wine until its flavor approximated that of a mature bottle. The other school holds the seeming opposite: that when you allow a wine to breathe, it becomes fresher, the fruit comes forward, and you get more of its youthful charm.

It’s just possible that both could be true, that different kinds of wine respond to breathing in different ways. But The Oxford Companion to Wine would say rather emphatically that neither is true. Of breathing in the bottle, this authoritative tome says “the wine can take only the most minimal of ‘breaths’, and any change is bound to be imperceptible.” On the authority of Émile Peynaud, The Oxford Companion is equally skeptical of decanting: “the longer it is prolonged – i.e., the longer before serving a wine is decanted – the more diffuse its aroma and the less marked its sensory attributes.” In other words, breathing is a lot of hot air.

That should settle the issue, but it doesn’t. My own experience directly and strongly contradicts those opinions. Whatever the authorities may say, breathing does in fact make a difference, often a big one, and almost always for the better. (Fragile older wines are the exception: they can be killed by overlong breathing, and in extreme cases by any breathing at all.)

When I was considerably younger than I am now, just starting out in wine writing and still feeling my way into wine’s intricacies, Diane and I spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what breathing did for a wine. In the best scientific, controlled-experiment fashion, we would take two bottles of the same wine and open one several hours before dinner and the other just at dinnertime, or decant one (sometimes immediately before dinner, sometimes at a predetermined length of time earlier) and pour the other from the bottle. We did this with many different types of wine, for different lengths of time. It was fun, and it was very, very informative.

In almost every case, the wine that had been more exposed to air tasted better to us: richer, fuller, more polished, more generous, sometimes even more developed – that is, tasting more like what we knew an older specimen of the same wine with more evolved flavors would taste like. To be sure, we were using young wines – we were young ourselves and correspondingly impecunious – but they were good wines: small Bordeaux chateaux, Burgundy village wines, Antoniolo Gattinara, Mastroberardino Taurasi, Poggio alle Mure Brunello – all affordable wines in that now-long-gone day.

Occasionally, to verify that we weren’t deluding ourselves, we had other tasters join us. The results were always the same: everyone agreed that the wine that had breathed was better – richer, more complex, a more intense version of what its sibling bottle tasted like. Even with simpler wines, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, there was a difference: The fruit might not be any more complex, but it was more vibrant. With wines capable of bottle age, like those I mentioned above, often some of the complexities started to show – nothing like what you would get with a properly aged wine, but more than a simple pop-the-cork-and-pour would give you.

You can easily try this yourself. Take two bottles of the same wine, one opened for one, two, or three hours or decanted for whatever length of time piques your interest, the other opened and served immediately. As I’ve said in this blog many times already, you only taste with your own mouth. See if breathing the wine makes any difference to you. If it doesn’t, you saved yourself a lot of future fuss. But if you do detect a pleasurable difference, you have added a new dimension to your enjoyment of wine.

More Masnaghetti Maps

July 4, 2011

Alessandro Masnaghetti, publisher of the newsletter Enogea and probably the foremost authority on Piedmont terroir, has released two new maps of Barolo and Barbaresco, showing all the recently approved cru names and sites in each appellation.

Like Masnaghetti’s other Piedmont maps, these two are handsome to look at, easy to read, and packed front and back with the kind of information a Nebbiolo lover otherwise finds difficult to locate – not just the physical where-is-it of a particular cru, but elevation, exposure, who owns it, and who bottles it. It is exactly that identification and location of each individual cru within both the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG appellations, along with the information about who bottles a wine from it and under what name, that distinguishes these two new maps from Masnaghetti’s earlier maps.

Each of those charted the vineyards of an individual township, provided information about  their altitude and exposure, and listed all the grape varieties  cultivated in those fields (not just the Nebbiolo). Nor did any cru names appear, as they then had no legal standing, or, for that matter, any agreed-upon boundaries – all of which has been resolved in the now-officially-named sites. Used together, the new cru maps and the earlier township maps answer almost any question the most trivia-obsessed Nebbiolo junkie could come up with. In short, the man I think of as the Mercator of the vineyards has raised the bar even higher for vineyard maps, outdoing even his own previous accomplishments.

I’m not the only one who thinks that these maps will one day be (if they aren’t already) collectors’ items, and not just for wine lovers (see Alfonso Cevola’s acute appreciation).

The maps and the information on them are systematically rendered in both Italian and English, so everything on them is easily accessible. In addition these two new maps are also available in digital format, making them usable on all sorts of handheld devices, and enabling such users to zoom in or out on whatever features interest them. I don’t know if Masnaghetti plans to issue his earlier maps digitally, but everything is available through almasnag@tin.it or info@enogea.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

This detail from the Barolo map shows some of the crus around Barolo township itself:

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You can readily identify the number and size of the different vineyards falling within each cru. And here is some of the kind of information about them that the reverse of the map provides:

Finally, just to give one more example of how good and useful these maps are, here’s a detail from the Barolo map of part of the township of Serralunga and some of its crus:

With Barolo and Barbaresco, it is just as important to know precisely where a wine comes from as it is in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Not just the village matters, but where in the village? Which hill? How high up that hill?  It all makes a difference to the wine and to the passionate wine drinker. For me as a wine professional these maps are indispensible, but I know that even as a just plain Nebbiolo-nut, I would want to have them to consult.

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 Emperor’s Flimsy Wardrobe

December 8, 2010

Every year around this time, The Wine Spectator publishes its list of the year’s 100 most exciting wines. This year’s list has duly (you may read that with two “l”s) appeared, and it disappoints as deeply as ever. For years now, for me the most exciting thing about the Spectator’s Hundred Best List has been its omissions.

If the Spectator was as insignificant as this blog, I would have no quarrel with its listing anything it wanted. But the Spectator is influential, if only because retailers and public relations people keep citing its numbers – its numerical scores, based as near as I can tell, on a 20-point scale of 80 to 100 – as if they were engraved on stone by the finger of the Almighty. In my opinion, they are written on water by very fallible human beings, and I often find the Spectator’s evaluations and comments on wines wildly off the mark. For me, the Spectator’s Hundred Best List concentrates all its quintessential off-the-mark-ness in one splendid spot.

Let’s start with some numbers, since the Spectator is so fond of numbers. Of any given year’s hundred best wines, how many would you reasonably expect would come from the Old World, the homeland of Vitis vinifera? Just think of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Let’s not complicate things with Germany or Austria, Greece or Hungary. Would you say fifty percent? Maybe even two-thirds? Dream on: Those four great, historic wine-producing nations get fewer citations among them than does the American west coast. California, Washington, and Oregon, according to the Spectator, last year produced a full third of the world’s one hundred finest wines. California by itself gave the world one-quarter of them – 25 listings to France’s puny 17, Italy’s weakling 9, and Spain and Portugal’s near-insignificant 6.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

If you count in the Spectator’s other New World listings – Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina – the US and the rest of the New World last year gifted us with a full fifty percent of the top wines in the world. Oh: I almost forgot – fifty-one percent if you throw in the list’s one New York wine.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

Some inferences are fair from these numbers. Given the preponderance of New World wines and the strong presence in the European listings of international-style or “auteur” wines, it’s obvious that the Spectator’s tasters have markedly California palates. That makes it very difficult for them to appreciate wines that aren’t strongly fruit forward, that opt for elegance, balance, and restraint over vigor, or that show a marked acidity. Those three characteristics describe most of the estimable wines of Europe, which means the Spectator is largely groping in the dark when it comes to evaluating them.

This was very vividly demonstrated for me a few years back, when the Spectator’s then Italian stringer James Suckling (more about Mr. Suckling below) pronounced 2000 Barolo a perfect, 100-point vintage. When most of the rest of us who regularly cover Italian wines stopped laughing, we wept. That corps of journalists of many nations (in whose company, by the way, neither Mr. Suckling nor anyone else from the Spectator has ever been seen) pretty unanimously considered 2000 at best a middling, not to say mediocre, Barolo vintage. It had been marred by excessive heat, so that at harvest many grapes were over-ripe while the tannins were green and harsh.

To hide these defects (though you really can’t hide them, if a taster is paying attention), a lot of producers aged the wines in new or heavily charred barriques. The result: wines with plenty of fruit up front, with a layer of oaky vanilla or espresso from the barriques, and harsh, biting tannins behind – essentially unbalanced wines, with little prospect of cellar development. (Most 2000 Barolos are already dead, bitter tannic corpses.) That’s not exactly what anyone but the Spectator would call a classic Barolo vintage – but hey! It had lots of fruit. Pity the poor souls who bought it on the Spectator’s recommendation with the thought that they had acquired a classic, long-lived Barolo.

The Italian selections on this year’s list merit some closer attention. One is an Amarone (Zenato ’06; good but very, very young) and one is a Pinot Grigio (Atems ’08: a nice wine, but one of the world’s top 100?). The other seven are all Tuscan wines. Think about that: not a single Barolo or Barbaresco or Gattinara or Ghemme. No Barbera or Dolcetto. Not a wine from the Marches or Abruzzo, Puglia or Sicily. Not a single bottle from Campania – no Taurasi, no Fiano, no Greco. Not a white from Jermann or Gravner or the whole of Alto Adige.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

I am not one of those who think that the Spectator is just the journalistic arm of the California Chamber of Commerce. But I am certainly one of those who wish that the Spectator would either learn European wines or just leave them alone. As matters now stand, I really believe its pronouncements do far more harm than good: They misdirect people rather than enlighten them.

Postscript: It gave me some hope a little while back when James Suckling left the Spectator. I thought that just maybe the Spectator had gotten embarrassed about the Vintage 2000 fiasco and that we would hear no more such gross misjudgments from Mr. Suckling. Alas, I was wrong. He’s back. What his PR agent calls “the wine world’s most important voice” – so much for Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates, Parker and Spurrier, Broadbent and Sutcliffe, and all the rest of the world’s apparently-Suckling-wannabees – is starting up a website. I looked at the trailer for it (no, I’m not going to give you the URL) and I would certainly rate it at or near 100 on the pretention meter. If nothing else, I will check it regularly in the future for its inadvertent comedy content. If you can’t beat ‘em, you can at least laugh at them.

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.

Putting La Morra on the Map and Other Nebbiolo News

June 14, 2010

Three short items today: a new vineyard map; a précis of Nebbiolo Prima, formerly the Alba Wine Event; and a buying opportunity for top-flight Barbaresco.

I spent an intense week in Piedmont last month tasting wines and visiting producers – I’ll report briefly on that here, in detail in future posts. I want to start with what is definitely good news: the map of the commune of La Morra that Alessandro Masnaghetti has just issued.

Alessandro Masnaghetti

As I explained in an earlier post, Alessandro Masnaghetti is a highly respected Italian wine journalist, the publisher, editor, writer, mapmaker – pretty much the whole writing and production staff – for Enogea, a bimonthly Italian-language journal devoted to the wines and terroir of Italy’s great red wine areas – most notably, Piedmont and Tuscany. He has been producing a series of vineyard maps, in Italian and in English, of individual communes in those zones. These maps are more accurate, more detailed, and provide more information about sites, expositions, and ownership, than any vineyard maps I have seen for any other wine region. So complete are they that you can even use them to locate the newly created subzones of Barolo and Barbaresco.

This newest map, of La Morra commune and nearby Roddi and Cherasco, is fully up to the standards set by its predecessors. It completes Masnaghetti’s survey of the vineyards of Barolo. So he has now issued complete maps of both major Nebbiolo denominations, Barolo and Barbaresco, containing as much vineyard and producer information as any wine maven could desire. The maps can be obtained by contacting, in Italy, almasnag@tin.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

Map detail: the village of La Morra and some nearby vineyards and wineries

Nebbiolo Prima: the Short Version

Now for the less good news. What used to be the Alba Wine Event (I always liked the acronym) is now Nebbiolo Prima, with new (and definitely not yet up to speed) PR crew replacing the very competent Wellcom staff who previously ran it. So there were glitches, not least important of which were the temperature of the wine storage (tasting samples were too warm) and tasting room (chronic trouble with the air conditioning) – both of which make serious problems when you’re tasting 85 newly bottled Nebbiolo wines every morning.

Here is the summary of the event. The 2007 Barbarescos are charming – very accessible, with lovely fruit, good acid, decent structure. They may not be the longest-lasting wines ever to come out of the zone, but they will be enjoyable drinking over the next ten years.

Charm, on the other hand, is not a word to use in connection with 2006 Barolo. These are tough, enormously structured wines, complex and deep, but leatherbound right now and maybe for the next five years. If you miss old-fashioned Barolo as I do – wines that took years to come round and then got better and better for decades – 2006 is your vintage.

Buyer, Be Aware

Here’s an important piece of news that should affect your wine budget: Produttori di Barbaresco, the superb cooperative that every year offers some of the best wines and finest bargains in Barbaresco, has decided not to bottle separately any of its cru wines in the 2006 vintage. All have been vinified separately but will be blended back into the “basic” Barbaresco.

The reasons for this are, apparently, first, that there is too much wine already in the pipeline, and, second, that in 2006 the cru wines reflect the vintage – as in Barolo, it is that kind of dominating vintage – much more than they do their individual terroirs. Whatever the reasons, this makes a fantastic buying opportunity for Nebbiolo fans: a first-rate vintage from a first-rate producer at bargain-basement prices. I have already seen Produttori 2006 Barbaresco here in New York for as little as $30 a bottle. That’s a whole case of a fine, long-lived Barbaresco for the price of a single bottle of Gaja. Need I say more?

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.

Tales from the Crypt

March 11, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of wine travel lately, all of it in Italy. In mid-February I was trekking through an unexpectedly snowy and cold Tuscany, and in fact I’m in Italy right now. I wrote this post ahead of time and scheduled it to appear during the week when I’m off to hopefully warmer Sicily, followed by a few days in Piedmont. That adds up to a lot of Italian wines, mostly red and mostly very young. You’ll hear about all these eventually, but I need a little time to get some distance on them and think about them. In between trips, while I was home, I wanted to drink some wines that were neither Italian nor young, so I went scrounging in that “cellar” (i.e., closet) you’ve heard so much about recently. Here’s what I dug out.

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape blanc 2002

The white wines of the Rhone Valley are generally not well known in this country, which is OK by me, since there isn’t a huge supply of them and they’re expensive enough already. Although they can be drunk young – they’ve all got good fruit, sound structure, and usually intense minerality – they are supremely age-worthy wines.

At seven years of age, this archetypically Rhone blend – 80% Rousanne, with Grenache blanc, Picardan, Bourboulenc, and Clairette – was still very youthful, despite its appearance. It was the color of copper, and had a scent of copper too – definitely something metallic – plus dried pear and fig and any number of other things that popped up as it opened and changed with food.

White Chateauneufs and their cousins, the white Hermitages, are big wines, with a take-no-prisoners attitude: you have to come to them. This one loved our appetizer of smoked sturgeon, but it really wanted roast turkey or pork or veal rather than the skate meuniere we had prepared for a main course. Unquestionably a great, distinctive wine, and a fine representative of the whole august family. I have only a few more bottles, which I’ll try not to drink before their tenth birthday at least. Wish me luck.

Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1998

As should be clear to anyone who’s following this blog, I am not a huge fan of the dominant California style in wines – all that big, forward fruit and high alcohol – but Beaulieu Vineyards has never been a member of that school. It has always been one of the more European-style winemakers, emphasizing balance and elegance rather than power: diplomacy rather than a frontal assault.

This ten-year-old bottle of its flagship wine didn’t disappoint in any way. As expected, it showed itself balanced and elegant rather than forceful, though the nose is big and rich. Initially, some bitey green tannins appeared in the finish, but braised lamb shanks nicely smothered that and brought up the wine’s body and finesse. Green tannins don’t go away with bottle age – if they’re present in the grapes at harvest, they last in the bottle forever – but some foods can deal with them. 1998 must have been hot, with a lot of sugar ripeness to force harvest before the tannins completely ripened and softened – a frequent problem in California, which most producers use a lot of new oak to hide. I’m sure this wine saw some barrique, but not enough to alter its fundamentally sound flavors. A really nice wine, enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Ridge California Geyserville 1999

Ridge is another one of the California producers I trust. When push comes to shove, I’ll taste anything Paul Draper makes, and the odds are strong I’ll like it. He has a markedly European palate, and the wines he makes tend to reflect his predilection for balance, elegance, and depth. I love his Zinfandels because they become so claret-like as they age: they just seem to go from harmony to harmony, year by year. This ten-year-old was just perfect, and unfortunately my last.

Ridge’s always informative front and back labels tell a lot of the story. Front label:

68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 16% Petite Sirah. Sonoma County. 14.8% alcohol. Bottled January 2001.

Back label:

Despite the season’s late start, moderate temperatures and a long, lovely autumn fully matured the fruit at Geyserville; harvest began in the last days of September. The old zinfandel (c. 1900) was picked first, then the young vines, planted in 1990. We waited until mid-October for the forty-year-old zinfandel and one-hundred and twenty-year-old carignane, finishing with petite sirah. Each of the eighteen parcels was held separate; naturally occurring yeast and natural malolactic bacteria carried out the fermentations. Twenty-five percent of the wine was aged in new, air-dried american oak, the rest in older barrels of similar wood. This Geyserville is among the finest of a great decade, and will be at its best over the next seven or eight years.

As I said above, this bottle made it ten years with ease, and tasted as if it could have gone on for quite a while yet. It had a great nose of prunes and plums and dried funghi porcini. On the palate, it tasted and felt like a fine claret – a good third-growth Bordeaux – but more intense and bigger without losing any of the polish. A great wine: I begrudge every delicious bottle of it that I’ve drunk before this last one.

*

Wines like this are why I cellar wine in the first place. If I were lucky enough to find wines of these now-long-past vintages on the market today, they would cost me far more in dollars than they originally did, and they would certainly cost me a great deal of time and effort to locate and acquire. The ease and convenience of just poking my head into my closet – excuse me: of course I mean stone-vaulted, cobwebby cellar – and choosing tonight’s wine is an inestimable value to a lazy curmudgeon like myself.

. . . And Into the Closet

March 3, 2010

If, as I argued in my last post, the best reason to cellar wines is to revel in the marvelous flavors of wine at its mature peak, that leads to some basic questions. Do you need a literal cellar?  Which wines should you put in it? What conditions, minimal or optimal, do they really need to grow into the graceful adults that we want to drink?

Minimal conditions: My wine closet

Most of the wines that repay cellaring are reds – but not all of them, and not even always reds. Essentially, wines with good body and generous structure, especially with good acidity and sufficient grape tannins (from the grapes, not the barrels), benefit most from aging, and that description fits a lot of the world’s wines. 

The great estates of the Médoc and, to a lesser extent, some from St. Emilion and Pomerol on the opposite bank of the Gironde, were the first collectors’ wines and still remain the primary focus of connoisseurship. These are followed closely by the now-famous red Burgundies of the Côte d’Or, where some of the white wines – the grands crus Chablis, for instance, and some Cortons, Meursaults, and Montrachets – also develop beautifully in the bottle. By the mid-19th century, the great Rhone reds – Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage – had joined the ranks of wines for laying down. Knowing wine lovers now also seek out the best growers from other Rhone villages, particularly Cornas and St. Joseph.  

In Italy, three noble red varieties produce wines that are notably age-worthy:  

  • From the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and other village wines of the Piedmont.
  • From Sangiovese, Chianti Classico Riserva, Brunello di Montalcino, and some Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
  • From Aglianico, Taurasi, Falerno Rosso Riserva, and Aglianico del Vulture.

Increasingly, top-flight Nero d’Avolas from Sicily also reward cellaring. Spain’s Vega Sicilia and its classically made Riojas are notoriously long-lived – but the traditional styles of the latter are, alas, increasingly hard to find.  

New-world wines – from California, the US northwest, Australia, New Zealand – are only now establishing a track record, so their ageability is hard to predict. Because of my European-oriented palate, I have experience primarily with more continental-style winemakers – estates such as Chalone, Montelena, Trefethen, and especially Ridge, almost all of whose wines I would happily cellar. I don’t drink Ridge’s Zinfandels, for instance, until they are 8 to 10 years old, when for my taste they are perfectly balanced and elegant. Its Cabernets I keep even longer.  

The biggest problem in storing wine is, simply, heat. Really excessive heat destroys wines in very short order. Ordinary household warmth won’t kill wines, but it will speed up their normal process of maturation. That, depending on the wine and your preferences, can be a good or a bad thing. If you are putting together a collection with the thought of leaving it to your children or grandchildren (or for re-sale; as Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui!), then you definitely need some form of climate control. On the other hand, if you’re buying wines for your own consumption, wines that you want to drink at their maturity, and if you’re brave enough to face the fact that you won’t live forever – well, in that case a little heat won’t be too bad. It will bring the wine around sooner, so you may actually get to enjoy some slow-maturing wines before you lose your palate or your wits.  

This past Christmas, I opened a bottle of 1989 Barolo Lazzarito from Vietti, which had been stored since purchase in my less-than-ideal domestic conditions. The wine was gorgeous, evolving absolutely classically, and at 20 years of age not yet at its peak. I don’t know about you, but 20 years is about the limit of my patience (and at this stage of the game, the outer limit of my life expectancy), so that works out fine, as far as I’m concerned.  

I’ve found that wines can survive in a New York City apartment. And if that’s so, then probably they might even thrive in your home, in a closet, in a spot where they are not jostled, and where the heat varies only gradually over the course of the year. That’s important, because sudden spikes in temperature, whether up or down, do seem to have seriously bad effects on wine. But basically, if you can live comfortably with the conditions, the odds are your wines can too – maybe not forever, but long enough for most of us.  

My domestic wine storage is effectively a compromise: the space available and the limits on my budget modify my otherwise uncontrolled desire to acquire. My home cellar is, simply, a broad, shallow, centrally located closet with diamond-shaped shelving. It’s rarely as cool as I would like (a fan helps in summer), but never preposterously hot, though most of the year it is certainly warmer than ideal. But the temperature changes only gradually, and the worst effect I’ve noticed is that some wines – not all, by any means – mature markedly faster in it than they would in an actual cold cellar.  

For wines that I want to hold longer term, I rent storage space in a huge old warehouse along the Hudson river – not designed for wines, not airconditioned, but comfortable all summer long, and moderately warm in winter. Again, such temperature changes as occur happen very gradually, and my experience has shown me that that is the most important factor in preserving and maturing wines.  

Most problems with stored wines arise from corks. Corking probably destroys more wines than bad storage ever did. The culprit is a fungus in the cork that grows with age and permeates the wine, so a young wine may be slightly corked and an older wine completely ruined, smelling and tasting of damp cardboard. Unfortunately, there is no way of detecting this problem until you open the bottle, when it usually makes itself painfully apparent.

The only remedy – and it’s not perfect – is the plastic-wrap treatment. Pour all the wine into a bowl, take a large sheet of plastic wrap, dunk it in the bowl, slosh it around a bit, and leave it there for 5 or 10 minutes. (The molecule that infects the wine is chemically akin to the polyethylene in the wrap, and it bonds to the plastic.) Then squeeze the wine out of the wrap, discard the wrap, and transfer the wine into a pourable container.  This procedure can make many apparently ruined wines drinkable, if not all that they would have been, so you get at least some small reward for your patience.  

On the other hand, when the cork is sound and the wine mature, the reward your patience reaps is enormous, and unmatchable any other way. Bear that in mind when you’re next buying wine. The stock market “wisdom” (Hah!) is “buy low, sell high.”  Wine wisdom is “buy young, drink old.”