Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Choosing Wine, Serving Wine, Mastering Wine

October 28, 2013

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

Modigliani

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

Picasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Useful New Books

March 29, 2013

Two recently published books deserve every wine lover’s attention. Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, by Tom Hyland, and The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto, MW, and Frances Di Savino, take very different approaches to their subjects, but both offer abundant and valuable information for anyone curious beyond the most obvious level of Italian wine lore.

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hyland

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance wine writer and photographer who fell in love with Italy, its people, and its wines more than a dozen years ago and has been immersing himself in them ever since. His Beyond Barolo and Brunello organizes itself in what seems a familiar pattern, but then quickly moves off in unexpected directions. It treats all of Italy’s regions, north to south and the islands, an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who has done a little reading in Italian wine – or in Italian travel, for that matter. But within each section, Hyland’s treatment is very different from the conventional.

He begins each regional section with a simple listing of the most important grape varieties grown there, and then presents cameos of his favorite producers of each variety. This means that each chapter offers a survey of some of the best producers of each region in particular relation to what Hyland considers their best wines. For most readers, this will create some comforting recognitions, and a few surprises. For example: Massolino’s Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva is an expected and appropriate entry – it’s a famous wine, after all – but how delightful it is to find entries as well for less familiar appellations and makers, such as the Boca from Le Piane, or Sella’s Lessona “Omaggio a Quintino Sella” from Piemonte’s northern wine zone.

Similarly, in his treatment of Campania, all the famous varieties – Aglianico, Greco, Fiano – and all their famous makers – Mastroberardino, Terredora, Feudi di San Gregorio and so on – are handled thoroughly, but there is also respectful treatment of lesser-known varieties (the whites Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Asprinio, Fenile, Ginestra, and Biancolella; the reds Piedirosso, Tintore, and even Merlot) and their producers. So Pietracupa’s and Ciro Picariello’s Fianos are presented right alongside their more famous compatriots. In the same way among the red wines, along with the famous Taurasis and Aglianicos, you find such fine small producers as Monte di Grazia, whose Costa d’Amalfi Rosso harbors the rare Tintore grape. For the wine lover who wants to explore the spacious world of Italian wine, Beyond Barolo and Brunello opens a very wide door to a treasurehouse of wines and their producers.

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The Nesto/Di Savino book, The World of Sicilian Wine, approaches its more traditional subject in a more traditional way, starting with several quite interesting chapters about the long – and for its protagonists, too often frustrating – history of winemaking in Sicily, a process too often directed more by external events and foreign interests than by Sicilians themselves. There follow equally interesting sections on the geography, geology, and climate(s) of Sicily and how all of these affect winemaking. Three large chapters deal in detail with the contemporary wine situation in Sicily’s three main geographical sections, the Val di Mazara, Val di Noto, and Val Demone. All three chapters feature interviews, long and short, with producers, great and small, yielding a fascinating overview of the important trends in Sicilian wine right now, as well as informative perspectives on some of the principal players.

This clearly a heartfelt book: The authors’ affection for Sicily and its people – especially its devoted wine people – shines through everywhere, though it never gets in the way of their clear-eyed view of Sicilian winemaking’s possibilities and pitfalls. Of course in a book that covers as much ground as this one does, there are bound to be areas where my opinion differs from the authors’ – for example, I’m much more enthusiastic about the Carricante variety and the Etna wines made from it than they seem to be. But that’s a minor point: The key thing to remember is that this is a very carefully done, thoroughly researched production, packed with information and detail that will be very hard to find anywhere else. If you want to know about Sicilian wine, this is your book.

All Things Bright and Bubbly

December 28, 2012

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

menu 2

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

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

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

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

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

flight 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

new year bells

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

Wine Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

September 2, 2012

Richard Elia, founder and publisher of The Quarterly Review of Wines, has posted on its website an eloquent explanation of his magazine’s closure as a print publication late last year, after 35 years. A sad occasion, but a sign of the times, perhaps: The Wine News had preceded it into oblivion a few years before, and wine articles had disappeared from general-interest magazines before that. Newspaper circulations are down, and internet wine information (soi-disant) is proliferating. All that leaves not much room for a journal that aimed at sophisticated wine drinkers of passion and discrimination, already a seriously self-limiting audience. (Does that sound snobbish? I think of it as factual.)

The last issue of QRW

Elia’s online essay is called “Wine’s Decline: The Romance of Wine Is Spent,” and it laments the replacement of wine’s formerly colorful cast of characters – Elia cites André Tchelistcheff, Alexis Lichine, André Simon – by faceless and characterless corporate types. Even more distressingly, he deplores the submersion of the passion and drive to make great, personal wines in a flood of market research and numerical ratings. (Read his essay here. And see also the commentary of Tom Hyland.)

Elia makes a strong case, and a moving one: Much indeed has been lost. There are no more Luigi Veronellis or Giorgio Grais, no Edoardo Valentinos, and all too soon there will be no more Franco Biondi-Santis. Pioneers like Renato Ratti and Giacomo Bologna are long gone, as are retailers as passionate and devoted as the still-lamented Lou Iacucci – that is now a rare breed indeed. I could give you similar doleful litanies for France and California, but the easiest way to see what has passed is to look to Bordeaux and see how many estates are now owned by corporations or insurance companies or banks or have been conglomerated under a single ownership. What used to be proudly idiosyncratic is now the province of suits. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.

And yet, and yet …. It ain’t all bad. I’m certain I qualify as an old fart, and I know I’m as much given as anyone to lamenting the passing of the good old days. I agree emphatically with most of what Elia says. Particularly I deplore, as he does, the noise levels in restaurants that make conversation impossible and paying attention to what you’re eating and drinking difficult at best. That’s why Diane and I seldom dine out any more (actually, that and restaurant wine markups), unless we can find a restaurant that still believes its primary purpose is to feed its clients rather than deafen them.

But for those of us who love wine, as Elia surely does, it has to be admitted that we are in fact living in a golden age of wine. There is more good wine being made today, by more people, in more places, than ever before.

Yes, there are oceans of grape swill being made as well, and they will continue to be made and marketed as long as there are people foolish enough to buy them. We’ve all encountered people who drink wine – why, I’ve never understood – that they purchase by price alone. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve met a publisher of a small newspaper who told me that he doesn’t believe in spending more than $3 for a bottle of wine.

But, but …. There is an up-side to all these downs. Because of that technology we too often complain of, because of those crass commercial incentives, because even of global warming (think of the string of great vintages in Burgundy and in Piedmont), but most of all because there still are winemakers out there who care passionately about what they’re doing, people who would probably still work their hearts out to make great wine even if they couldn’t command the kind of prices for it that the market now allows – for all those reasons, I think this is not the time to give up on the wine world.

I don’t think it will ever again be the kind of clubby little knot of connoisseurs it once (supposedly) was. But the passion that I see in winemakers in France and Italy (the areas I know best), the curiosity to explore neglected varieties and to preserve local traditions – those are things that tell me that the romance is still alive. Yes, I’ll admit that one man’s romance can be another man’s hype. I can even accept that the same thing can be both; there’s a market too for folklore and traditions. But that doesn’t alter the fundamental fact: A person willing to take the trouble to learn a little bit can easily find fine wines to reward the effort.

The rub, perhaps, is “taking the trouble to learn a little bit.” As Elia observes, nobody seems to want to do that anymore. Nothing – nothing of any sort – teaches you about wine like the drinking of it, tasting a wine by itself, with different foods, in different vintages, in comparison with other similar and dissimilar wines. But that takes time and effort and a willingness to pay attention, take notes, and remember. Apparently – and Elia is surely right about this – most people can’t be bothered to do that, when they can call up a numerical score on their iPad and place any wine exactly in its predestined place in the wine universe and be assured thereby of their own exquisite taste. If you can buy expertise and knowledge the same way you buy a pair of shoes or a new app, who needs experience?

Regard that question as rhetorical: We all need experience. There is – ask any wine professional – a huge difference between theory and practice. Just knowing the number that the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator assigned a wine tells you exactly zero about the wine, and less than zero about how much or little you will enjoy it. Only your own experience will tell you that – and people who are now starting to foray into the world of wine are blessed beyond measure by the bounty of splendid wines available for them to learn from.

Despite that, some no doubt will settle for plonk. Some will become the kind of wine poseurs we all hate. But some surely will catch the passion and carry on the tradition of discrimination and refined enjoyment whose passing Richard Elia – prematurely, I hope – laments.

Postscript:  I received this e-mail from Burton Anderson. I’m posting it here so that I can provide a link to his book excerpt.

Dear Tom:  Just read your new post and, of course, found myself in total agreement, not only with your words but also those of Richard Elia. For what it’s worth, I’ve attached an excerpt from a chapter of a book I’m working on.

Best, Burton

The Best Brunello Book Yet

June 4, 2012

Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (University of California Press; $39.95) is a must-have book for lovers of Brunello and, in fact, for anyone at all serious about Italian wine.

Brunello has burgeoned in my wine-drinking lifetime from a few more than half a dozen producers, mostly clustered around the medieval hill town of Montalcino, to well over two hundred, scattered all over the very diverse territories of the Brunello zone. Keeping track of that highly differentiated production – much more making sense of it – is a monumental task. O’Keefe has managed to do it by dint of persistence and equally monumental effort. As she puts it, “Rather than merely sit in my office and taste thousands of wines every year, I’ve visited all the Brunello estates profiled in the following chapters, some several times, and many more that are not in the book. I’ve spent years researching Brunello di Montalcino. . . . I’ve walked producers’ vineyards, visited their cellars, and talked for hours with the winemakers and their families. . . . I take [lengthy trips] to Montalcino every year.”

That kind of leg work produces the detailed and accurate information that makes O’Keefe’s book a milestone in our grasp of Brunello. I know first-hand the kind of terrier-like persistence it takes to extract that information from even the most candid winemakers. Most are not trying to hide anything: they just don’t at first understand what you’re after. The majority of the wine journalists they encounter have about three questions: what grape (s) is it made from? Is it a good vintage? What does it cost?

(Let’s be honest here, folks; most wine writing doesn’t qualify as Pulitzer-level journalism. It usually runs from pedestrian down to dismal – and at least half the reason for that is that most readers’ curiosity doesn’t extend beyond those three questions, and sometimes doesn’t even include the first one. For readers like that, Brunello di Montalcino will be only a big yawn.)

Back to O’Keefe’s research: The tough first step is getting the producers’ attention – making them aware you are serious and really want to know about why they chose to use botti rather than barriques and how that affects their wines, or why they adopted or gave up on organic cultivation, and what exactly it is about their clones or soils or exposures that distinguishes their wines. Most wine producers have been conditioned to talk about what they think the press wants to hear, and it takes intelligence and persistence and evident sincerity – the quality Italians mean by calling someone simpatico – to break through that to the deep well of knowledge that the best producers possess, and which they willingly share once they understand your seriousness, your willingness to work as hard at your craft as they do at theirs.

Brunello di Montalcino has successfully tapped that well. The discussion of Brunello’s astonishingly short (by Italian standards) history is very complete, and its consideration of wine-making styles very thorough, as are all the portraits and evaluations of individual producers. But the book’s greatest single contribution is almost certainly its detailed presentation of the variety of the Brunello zone’s soil types and the subsequent case O’Keefe makes for the necessity of some kind of subzoning of the territory. This is bound to be controversial: nothing more upsets winemakers anywhere than the thought that someone might entertain the remotest possibility that their vineyards are not the heart of the heart of whatever wine zone they’re in. But for consumers, her breakdown of the areas with soils favorable to great Sangiovese production and those with less likely terroirs, and her later discussion of individual producers within those areas, will be invaluable. It’s not an infallible guide – high achievers in less fine areas can often make first-rate wines, while underachievers in great areas can always produce plonk – but it is an extremely helpful and illuminating one, the best tool I know for sorting out the great diversity of Brunello styles and qualities on the market.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with everything O’Keefe says about individual estates. A few she has, for my palate, been too kind to, and a few too strict with. I think, for instance, she is unduly harsh on Banfi and mis-estimates its wines – but these are minor problems in what is overall an excellent book.

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Full disclosure: I’ve known Kerin O’Keefe for a few years now as a colleague and friend. I was one of the readers for the University of California Press who recommended publication of her book. For both those reasons I’ve hung back from reviewing the book here (it appeared in February). But I urged UC Press to publish Brunello di Montalcino because I thought it was a good book, not because I knew Kerin – and if I think it a good book, why shouldn’t I call it to my readers’ attention? Conscience eased, problem solved: ergo this review.

“Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce”

May 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Authors at Work in the Test Laboratory

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

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

Bringing the Kids Up Right: An Unusual Wine Book

February 10, 2012

I just received a copy of a new book by an old friend, Teresa Severini Zaganelli. Grapes in the Glass is a wine primer intended for teenage readers. I can already hear neo-Prohibitionists shrieking in chorus from coast to coast. But relax – the subtitle is “Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility,” and it’s a very common-sense introduction to the world of wine not as exotica or narcotica but as a simple part of everyday life, maybe even as a career path.

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Teresa, a trained enologist in her own right, is the stepdaughter of the near-legendary Giorgio Lungarotti, the father of serious winemaking in Umbria. So she quite literally learned everything there is to know about winemaking at the feet of a master, and one who was around every day. She is also the mother of three, so she can be considered a master of that trade too. Which will lead me – eventually: I like to work up to things logically – to what surprised and pleased me most about her book.

What isn’t at all surprising is how good a wine primer it is. Its discussions of the progress of wine from vine in the field to juices in the cellar to nectar in the bottle is detailed, clear, and complete. Anything you want to know about the winemaking process is in there, in a very user-friendly fashion, in clear, direct language, and illustrated by many amusing drawings.

The framework of Teresa’s book – maybe fictional, maybe factual – is that her teenage son Francesco has volunteered his mother and her workplace for a class outing. What will surprise many Americans and outrage some is that the teacher and school OK the project, and Francesco and his peers visit Cantina Lungarotti for a lesson in viticulture and viniculture, conducted by Teresa.

The presentation is straightforward and light-handed but never condescending. The information conveyed – and there is a lot of it – is presented clearly, in language scaled to an intelligent beginner’s comprehension. And it isn’t just about Italian wine; almost all of the book’s explanations apply equally to winemaking anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of wine lore in Grapes in a Glass that many serious wine fans will be happy to have in so concise and clear a form. Their teenagers may well have to wait until Mom and Dad have finished reading Grapes in a Glass before they get their chance at it.

Which brings me to what really surprised me about this little book: its level of literacy, and the corresponding level of comprehension, it presumes in its intended teenage audience. As I said, Teresa is raising three children, and the frame narrative of her book sounds very much as if it is based on an actual occurrence. Anyone who has visited tourist sites in Italy knows that Italian children seem to be always trotting about on one field trip or another – so that aspect of the book is completely plausible. And if Teresa is right about the reading skills and attention levels of the young people she’s aiming her book at – and I have to presume she knows ragazzi as well as she knows vino – then that is plausible too.

And that means that Italian teenagers are simply far better readers and much more serious-minded than their American coevals. I remember with great pain that I’ve taught many college students who didn’t have the reading skills or attention span that this short book presumes. That’s sad. It makes no difference whether students are reading Marx or the Bible, wine lore or the Rapture, if they can’t understand what the words mean.

It’s bracing and encouraging to me to see evidence of a school system that is working. All we ever seem to hear about Italian education in this country is about student unrest and the crisis of the Italian universities. On the evidence of this splendid little tome, Italian schools are definitely doing something – maybe many things – right.

Grapes in the Glass was originally published in Italian and has been very well translated into English, in a British idiom, by Valeria Cazzola. It’s odd, therefore, that Amazon UK sells only the Italian-language version. Amazon US doesn’t (at the time of this writing) carry the book at all, but the English-language version is available from FdF Marketing PR Consultancy for $14.99. E-mail defalco94@aol.com.

Grapes in the Glass. Wine: Know-how, Fun and Responsibility (Edizione Gribaudo, Milano, 2011), 72 pp., many illustrations, useful index.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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!

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.