June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
My Portland Press Herald wine column this week is on rosé. Does anyone at this point need to be told how great rosé is? Not all of it, of course (just like reg’lar red and white wine, goshdarnit), but man can you get some delicious wine at $15 and under. In my usual way, I got a little carried away as I wrote, and so I wrote too long, and some chunks of the article got edited out. For you masochists, the excised portions are below. Read that, then link to the article and get busy! I mean, that lawn ain’t gonna mow itself…and afterwards, that fridge ain’t gonna open itself and that glass ain’t gonna fill itself. But all that’s a cruel joke unless you buy several bottles and keep ’em chilled!
(By the way, sorry about the formatting problems in the article. Seems the newspaper’s online sector can’t handle foreign-language accent marks and so when they’re in there it gums up the works.)
With the sun finally out and plenty of spring cleaning and maintenance tasks to be taken on (after which a refreshing beverage is called for), it’s time for rosé. There are an extraordinarily high number of rosés available now – many of them very, very good – and this column is in no way comprehensive. There are so many good rosés out there that I haven’t tasted, and even some of the very good ones I have tasted are not mentioned below. (Additionally, my list betrays a European bias that’s not entirely fair, as more New World winemakers embrace the rosé genre.) That’s how bountiful the scene is right now: enough different delicious rosés that you could explore from now until September and never grow bored.
I’m not going to spend more than this measly paragraph “arguing the case” for rosé. If you still think of this category as “blush” wines made in a supersweet, unbalanced White Zin style; if you’re such a Big Guy that it’s only Big Reds for you: catch up with us, buddy! I’ve converted many people to rosé just by having them close their eyes before I hand them a glass. Rosé is made from red-wine grapes where the crushed fruit stays in contact with its skins for less than 18 hours. Whatever hang-ups you have concerning “girly” colors or fresh red fruits, get over them.
They’re not just for summer, either. It’s a cliché to note how perfectly rosés work with Thanksgiving and other harvest-time fare, but these wines are for any time you want something very vibrant and exciting to drink. The lighter styles do thrive in warm months, though: casual, cobbled meals are just the thing for most pink wines, as are grilled vegetables and white meats, crab salad or lobster rolls, tomatoes, salads with beans or greens, and fresh cheeses like mozzarella or feta. Deeper styles are great with burgers or pasta alla Bolognese: Food with blood and/or tomatoes goes great with dark rosés.
Again, here’s the link.
May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
My latest wine column in the Portland Press Herald sings the praises of a mixed case. You talk to your retailer, you give her a price maximum, and she rewards your trust with eye-opening wines, wines you never would have thought of, wines you can grow with and turn friends on to.
April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
From Portland Press Herald, April 27, 2011
This is a Golden Era for anyone excited about wine. That’s not because 2008 Oregon Pinots are “perfect” (though they are), nor because 2009 Burgundies are ready-to-drink-now (kinda true, which is why 2008s are better), nor because 2009 Beaujolais is the “vintage of a lifetime” (not; 2009s just taste like Malbec so the industry is happy).
It’s a Golden Era because of a generation of young, curious and un-hidebound importers, who are bringing to market an array of exciting, honest wines from little-known producers and regions that until recently you had to travel great distances to find. For under $15 a bottle.
Exhibit A: Laurent Bonnois. As the importer behind Maximilien Selections, Bonnois brings to the U.S. low-priced Old-World wines of character. Some of the best-selling in Maine are ridiculously quirky, with obscure grapes and from places even French people know little about, yet they sell because they’re delicious and real. “I like lighter wine,” Bonnois told me. “I want people to have a second glass. Oak helps wine age, but most people here don’t buy wine to age it, they’re drinking it tonight. They want to taste freshness, minerality, liveliness, acidity, balance.”
Read wine magazines and compare how many times you see such terms as “freshness”, “liveliness” and “balance” with the count for “gobs”, “huge”, “concentrated” and “inky”. I have no idea what sort of point-scores Bonnois’ wines garner, but it’s a sign of the increasing irrelevance of such reviews that ordinary drinkers are buying a lot of Maximilien wines these days. We care about the connections between wine and food, and are not rich or stupid enough to buy ego-gratifying trophy wine.
“I’m looking for pleasure,” Bonnois said, “for wines that will really go with food. When I taste, it’s with a casual sort of drinker in mind, who’s sitting at the bar or cooking dinner….Many wine-sellers and critics think people drink the way professionals taste, but it’s not so. What normal person tastes through 30 wines?! So, often what gets promoted is based on false assumptions about what people want.”
Bonnois worked for years in New York City restaurants, eventually opening a wine shop, Blanc et Rouge, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. In 2007 he sold the store and moved with his wife and two kids to Bourgueil in the Loire, where his father lives. Most U.S. importers live stateside; Laurent lives where he works, “and I sleep on a friend’s couch every time I come to NYC.” By living in France and selling his wines through a U.S. agent, he can stay closer to the winemakers he loves.
He can also live cheaply (“I’m not greedy,” he told me. “I live in the Loire and I don’t need much money”), and pass his parsimony on to us. (How else to get offbeat wines into people’s hands?) These wines pose little threat to the under-$4, market-tested corporate junk enjoying a heyday, of course, but those wines aren’t values; they’re just cheap. Maximilien brings within reach wines of uncommon complexity and truth. Here are just a few:
La Croix Blanche Côtes de Gascogne 2009, $10. Crisp and easy, this just pops. It’s what most people who choose Sauvignon Blanc are actually looking for.
Château de la Morinière Muscadet sur Lie ‘Vielles Vignes’ 2009, $12. From 35-year-old vines and aged a long time on the lees, this is a relatively full-bodied, rugged Muscadet you will drink with every meal containing oysters or tender white fish from now until October.
Domaine Grand Chardonnay 2008, Côtes du Jura, $16. A rich Chardonnay with a hint of oxidation that sees one year of oak-aging, but comes through very clean. From a winemaker who has been farming biodynamically for 20 years, using only natural yeast. All Chardonnay-lovers should know this wine. (Domaine Grand’s red Trousseau, mentioned in my previous column, is currently my favorite wine.)
Famille Laurent Saint-Pourçain 2008, $14. By now almost classic, this upper-Loire Gamay–Pinot Noir blend is what helped make Laurent Bonnois’ name in these parts. Gamey, with open-air earthy qualities and pure, driving fruit. Perfect summer red, slightly chilled or not.
Domaine du Bel Air Bourgeuil 2003, $14. When’s the last time you tasted an eight-year-old Loire Cabernet Franc for this price? Chewy, dense and alive, this brings to mind Terry Theise’s warning that a wine that is “concentrated” is only good if what you’re concentrating is attractive. Here the concentration is of land rather than fruit: pepper, branches, dried herbs.
Le Grand Rouvière Côtes de Provence 2009, $13. Old-vine love from Provence, and it hits with everything Provence is known for. Starting with a chunk of plump, oil-cured olives, then twiggy herbs, dry bark and some subtle grill marks. As it finishes, slowly, it takes on a grippy bitterness and expresses sun-baked rocks. I’d love to try this vintage in 5 years. Just a terrific red for grilled meat or even grilled whole fish.
April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
From Portland Press Herald, 13 April 2011
Rosé is delicious twelve months of the year, but the bulk of it is drunk from May to September. Although the past few years have seen a remarkable increase in wine drinkers’ willingness to appreciate pink wine, and the 2010 vintages are coming into stores and restaurants now, the critical mass won’t start buying for another month or so.
Consequently, let’s call this the season of pretty red wines. Pretty red wines are an easy segue into pink wine and the increased white-wine-drinking that summer brings. Pretty red wines unapologetically emphasize prettiness, which I’ll define as a tilt toward softness, smooth-edged integration of flavors, tannins in the background if anywhere, prominence of flowers and red fruit (cherries, cranberries, strawberries, certain kinds of plums; no dark plums, no blueberries) over earth and mammals.
Pretty reds are what many wine drinkers at least claim they don’t want, because as serious, substantial people they of course prefer “hearty reds” or “dry reds”. Anyone who lives in a cold climate, has adult responsibilities, eats (maybe also kills) meat and knows how to change their own oil must, of course, drink deep, dark red wine. The coffee is French roast, the flannel is thick, the boots are mud-caked, the driveway is shoveled, so the wine is dark red and bellows: The tannins are rip-snorting, the mouthfeel is Big-League-Chew, the blackberries and cocoa land their kidney punch.
To which a part of me says, Grow up, sunshine. Or at least, lighten up. It’s mid-April and aren’t we ready for something a little different? Anyway, I can’t tell you how many self-professed hearty/dry-red-wine drinkers I’ve seen taste a more supple red wine and absolutely swoon; it’s as if their souls, imprisoned by a Dostoyevsky-narrated-tale of what they’re supposed to prefer, can fly free in the honest air of joy, delicacy and grace. Some of these people even manage to crack smiles.
Here’s how you know a pretty wine: You taste the wine and all those muscles spending all that hard-earned energy “holding everything together” realize they could work half as hard and nothing bad will happen. These muscles are in your jaw, your face, your neck and shoulders; let them go.
Another way of knowing a pretty wine is when you taste it you say, “Wow, that’s just so…pretty!” And then you feel slightly ashamed, because “pretty” is one of those words our culture has come to frown on; who wants to sound like a parody of a second-grade art teacher? But it is pretty. It’s charming. Given the aggressive, overly fierce culture we find ourselves in, that smile — that connection with charm — is important. It’s not a secondary quality, it’s a kind of radical political act.
Pretty reds are, naturally, food wines, when the food is likewise unconcerned with grandstanding. The wines’ delicacy, harmony and grace come into finest focus when paired with simple, light, straightforward foods that springtime calls for: suppers made out of salads, or sandwiches; roast chicken or a simply grilled piece of fish; vegetables touched only by olive oil, salt and lemon; pasta with fresh tomatoes; soft, plainspoken cheeses.
Which grapes make pretty red wines? No iron-clad rules apply, but there are some reasonable guidelines. Pinot noir is an obvious place to start, though for the most part Pinot from France, Germany or Oregon is going to fit the profile better than California or Argentina. Gamay is often very pretty, and Sangiovese can be pretty if the winemaker knows how to tone down the sour-cherry aspect; ditto for Bonarda. Here are some recommendations, but please treat them only as starting-points for your own — smiley, charming — search:
Domaine Grand Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2009, France ($15, Devenish). This is the prettiest wine I’ve tasted in a long time, and the reason I wrote this column. Beautiful ripe fruit, soft as a baby from start to finish. (The grape is Trousseau, native to the Jura.)
Senda 66 Tempranillo 2008, Spain ($10, Mariner). Fuller-bodied than other pretty reds; let’s call it a gateway drug for those of you still skeptical. Succulent dried cherries, dried cranberries, dried roses, a little spice at the end. Gulpable, fun, playful.
Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir 2008, Germany ($22, SoPo). An amazing wine, which were it from Burgundy would cost twice as much. Mineral-rich, indeed as stony as a red wine can be and still be pretty. The cherries are the star here. Soon Von Schleinitz’s 2010 rosé will be available, and there simply are no words for how beautiful that wine is; for now, please splurge and drink this wine.
Château Bianca Pinot Noir 2009, Oregon ($14, Wicked). Perfectly supple mouthfeel, and wild strawberries dance on the tongue. What we talk about when we talk about Oregon.
Culpeo Pinot Noir 2010, Chile ($9, SoPo). Such a refreshing surprise because I don’t ordinarily associate Chilean wines with delicacy. Not complicated or even resonant, the Culpeo still expresses the softness and balance that much louder (and more expensive) wines fail to find.
March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment
From Portland Press Herald, March 30, 2011
Piedmont, in Italy’s northwestern corner, is best known enologically as the home of Barbaresco and Barolo, the so-called queen and king, respectively, of Italian wine, made with the legendarily site-specific Nebbiolo grape. Typically, Barbaresco and Barolo cost quite a bit of money and aren’t ready to drink for years if not decades after bottling.
Although a great aged Barbaresco or Barolo is one of the finest things on the planet (I hear), there’s a much wallet- and palate-friendlier option that calls Piedmont home: Barbera. There’s no single way to describe Barbera, because it takes so many forms, from unoaked versions that are light, fresh and brightly acidic to dark, oak-aged, grilled and complicated affairs.
The former are perfect for thin-crust pizza or Tuesday-night pasta and marinara (Barbera’s naturally high acidity goes toe to toe with surprisingly difficult to pair tomatoes), while the deeper expressions are spectacular with herb-rubbed roasts and spicy sausages. Young Barbera is also a close second to Gamay as the best red wine for Chinese food; it’s a delicious combination but only if you’re cooking Chinese at home since Portland has no good Chinese restaurants.
Accessible options for the lighter style of Barbera include spring-perfect Castelvero Barbera 2008 ($9 to $10, Pine State) and the more dark cherry and grill smoke accentedSan Silvestro Barbera Otone 2009 ($9 to $10, National). These are terrific after a nice 30-minute refrigerator ride, by the way: cooling them highlights their soft tannins and bright red fruits.
On the deep, dark and chewy side, I’m begging you: Drink the brilliant Perrone Barbera d’Asti Tasmorcan 2009 ($17, SoPo), packed with spice and tobacco. Also, I’ve previously praised the Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked), a gamey gem that stays playful and bright.
And now, near the end of this column, comes the main reason I wanted to write it: Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti Le Orme 2008 ($13 to $14, Nappi). It’s fermented in stainless steel, which retains the Barbera’s natural brightness and vibrant red fruits, but there’s a loamy, mushroomy quality that’s akin to a gentle Pinot Noir. Indeed, it’s this gentleness that is the most thrilling thing about it.
This is because the challenge to makers of lively, acidic reds like Barbera is to calm down their wines and bring harmony to their expression while retaining what makes them so exciting. With its slightly schizoid personality – jumpy and childlike, but also soft and introverted – Barbera risks imbalance.
The innovation of winemaker Michele Chiarlo – he started the winery in 1956 and hails from a family that has been growing grapes in Piedmont for seven generations – was to introduce the stabilizing/softening/creaming influence of malolactic fermentation to Barbera. He was among the first to do this, in 1970, and it effected a revolution in quality.
Michele’s son Stefano (trained as an enologist, he’s the vineyard manager and along with his brother Alberto is in line to take the reins from Michele) told me Le Orme is “a feminine wine: soft, delicate, elegant.” There’s an almost extravagant level of integration and harmony, but with no lack of pop, and it can go anywhere coming warmer months will suggest: pizza on the grill, fish with tomatoes and olives, lazy-afternoon charcuterie.
The Chiarlos are that rare thing in the world: an integration of classicism and innovation. Stefano told me, “The identity of the soil is important. Consumers now understand this; they’re looking for something particular. So winemakers must preserve a personal style based on where they are, and then when you make a choice you are sure; you don’t experiment.”
That doubt-free state is most ably attained with the Chiarlos’ single-vineyard Barbera, La Court 2004 ($42), a magnificent, large-oak-barrel-fermented jewel from Nizza Monferrato, the pre-eminent cru of Barbera d’Asti. Stefano calls this “a serious sacrifice,” because the Chiarlos prune so assiduously, there’s an entire vine’s worth of grapes in a single bottle. This is what I call Old Soul wine, and although the price is relatively high, it’s a bargain. The profile is earthy and powerful from the bottom up, with damp cigar leaf, cinnamon, toffee and mocha.
There’s also their unique, symphonic 2006 Barbaresco, the Reyna ($35), floral and herbal and anise-flecked, that you could spend a whole night just smelling; and a Gavi (Piedmont’s undeservedly little-known indigenous white wine, thrilling with asparagus of all things, as well as white fish) crackling with white pepper and minerals. With insufficient space to describe them, I’ll just urge you to start your Chiarlo friendship with the Barberas and move on from there.
For dessert or apertif, though, you need to know this right away – as I’ve written about before (available at my blog), Piedmont is also the birthplace of Moscato d’Asti, and Chiarlo produces an exceptional one: the Nivole 2008 ($13 to $14).
Apricots, pears and peaches burst out of the glass, mousse-y in texture and raked by fine bubbles. Five percent alcohol, sunny and sweet and shimmering and alive, it comes with a free patio or bowl of ice cream – your choice.
March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
From Portland Press Herald, 2 March 2011
Two weeks ago I began a conversation about pairing wine with food, a conversation I’d like to continue today. It’s a conversation, not a set of rules, because as with everything the only real rule is: It depends. We realized long ago, for instance, that the petty fascist who dreamt up “no red wine with fish” must have been so soused on Bordeaux that he never savored the pleasures of Blauburgunder with salmon, Beaujolais with halibut, Blaufrankisch with tuna, or Bourgeuil with tomato-herb fish stew.
So let’s do this calmly, with no pressure and nothing hard-and-fast. There are some general guidelines we might form consensus around, or at least have lively discussions about, recognizing this as the only absolute: Wine is historically an agricultural product, made by people who love food, to accompany their meals and their lives. It’s fine to drink the same wine you know with every meal, but it’s a lot more fun to play around with the possible relationships. Moreover, that’s what wine was made for.
Questions like, “What’s a good red wine for the lamb I’m cooking tonight?” are too easy. Lamb is so earthy, profound and succulent that a better question is which red wine would not go well with it. More casual — and common — meals raise more challenging questions. What if we’re stir-frying a bunch of different vegetables and finishing with dollops of sauce we bought at the Asian market last month, or it’s taco night and everyone at the table has slightly different fillings, or there are chicken breasts or split pea soup or you got take-out?
In all such situations, the best wines are relatively light-bodied and low in alcohol because those are the most flexible, and often with less well-known grapes because those usually come from farmer-based cultures that value simple food just as you do. Below are a couple of principles with a few suggestions. Beyond that, read alcohol levels, don’t fear unfamiliar grape names, and shop wine where you can talk food with a merchant you trust. And tune in for my next column.
Hearty foods want hearty reds…kind of. Beans, braises, sausage, dark sauces have brawny flavors, but two brawns don’t make it right. Non-special-occasion brawn matches best with something persistent yet humble. The best pairings will pick up the big flavors but provide counterpoint in the body and mouthfeel, avoiding murkiness, imbalance and one-dimensionality.
Castello di Meleto Rosso Toscano 2007 ($13, Pine State), mostly Sangiovese with a touch of Merlot, is very earthy, even a little stinky, but terrifically elegant too — a tribute to diligent winemaking that emphasizes low kiloliter-to-vine yields and stainless-steel fermentation.
Don Manuel Villafané Malbec 2008 ($13, Crush) is, um, Malbec for adults. It’s a civilized style, harmonious and restrained, with intense cocoa and baking-spices notes.
Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2006 ($13-14, Pine State), from Sardinia’s indigenous Cannonau varietal, is rustic, equine and briary but surprisingly light-bodied so it stays refreshing.
Ermita San Felices Rioja Crianza 2006 ($13, Devenish) is lively, lighter-style Rioja, with vivid but delicate fruit and unusually food-friendly.
A little sweetness is almost always helpful. I’ve already permanently damaged my larynx screaming about this, but seriously: almost no one truly likes a perfectly dry wine. Wine comes from fruit! Sweetness cuts the heat of spice, complements the sugars elicited by cooking vegetables, usually accompanies lower alcohol levels to befriend more foods, and makes people happy. You just need the sweetness to be offset by acidity, which in well-made wines like these is perfectly done.
Licia Albariño 2007 ($14-15, National). Galicia, Spain’s native varietal is just as aromatic as you want a white to be, but no more so. Classic Albariño oily texture, with big dried-apricot flavor and a fresh-dough sweetness, cut clean by slamming citrus. Very fresh and open-armed, very versatile: Try it with anything heavy in garlic and olive oil, herbs and green veggies.
Fruitière Muscadet “Petit M” 2009 ($12, Central). Muscadet is known as a bracing, rocky and bone-dry white. “Petit M” covers those bases, but adds splendidly integrated sphericity and a bit of fat, which broadens its potential gustatory mates past white fish: baked or fried potatoes, cannelinis, all kinds of salads.
Montinore Borealis Northern White 2008 ($10-11, Nappi), is what Oregon talks about when it talks about yum. A my-kind-of blend of organically grown Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, this is irresistible, a kind of gateway drug to more complex German and Austrian whites. Crisp but with subtle sweetness and rose petals, this is a great match for coconut curries, Indian dals, spring rolls, sriracha.
February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
From Portland Press Herald, February 15, 2011
Kind of about tofu, but not really. More about how to pair, with creativity and joy. Part One of…more
An exchange I had recently with a customer at Rosemont Market sticks with me, as often happens when moments don’t go right. I keep replaying the conversation in my mind, amending as I go, wishing I’d said this but not that, etc.
She was glancing at a bottle of Castano Monastrell 2009 ($9, Central), a rear-legs-kicking, gnarly desert-n-tanglewood Spanish red I happen to love (and so will you, if you love peppery, spirited red wines that don’t take no for an answer). At the same time, I was stocking shelves with a different Monastrell, the Atope 2008 ($13, Wicked) – less ornery, playing in a higher key with mint and blueberry prominent, a favorite of mine these days.
We recognized this shared moment with a somewhat uncommon grape, and got to talking. Turns out she’d lived in Almansa, the Atope’s home region, and had happy tales of quaffing Monastrell daily from the village urn at about $3 a bottle. She also had a bag of tofu in her hands, and as she grabbed a bottle of the Atope, I asked how she was planning to cook it to match with that wine.
She literally laughed. “I have no idea. You can’t drink wine with tofu.” With that, she was off to pay, and I started to say, Yes-Wait-Yes, but she laughed again and was gone.
This was what’s known as a teachable moment, and although I missed the opportunity then, I’ll try to re-seize it now. First of all, you can and should drink wine with tofu! There’s wine for everything.
Second, eat lamb, lentils or sausage and hearty greens with either of those Monastrells, and see what happens. Use the flavors and associations of a wine you know to suggest food matches, rather than just putting the wine next to food you happened to cook and crossing your fingers.
Third, the question of what to drink with tofu is as broad as what to drink with pasta. Both, plain, present almost completely neutral flavor profiles, and so what’s important is your preparation, other ingredients and sauces. (Therefore, any wine’s back label that says it’s a “great match for pastas” should be regarded skeptically.)
Simple red wines with a mix of sweet cherry and tongue-tingling acidity – like the Il Morino Sangiovese 2009 ($10, Central) or Capestrano Rosso Piceno 2009 ($10, Pine State) – are perfect if you’re covering pasta with tomato sauce, but with rabbit rag?ou need to drive deeper: Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked) is amazing, at once gamey – chewy even – and bright. Pasta with a mushroom-cream sauce would get wrecked by that Sangiovese, but would be exalted by an earthy Pinot Noir or a nutty southern Rhone white that blends Marsanne and Rousanne. Everything, always, depends on the details.
This returns me to the tofu. If you’re beholden to that Monastrell, make your meal conform to it, and do one of these things: rub firm tofu generously with a Cajun spice mix and blacken it; or crust the tofu with ground walnuts and currants before frying; or make a sauce using roasted garlic; or add chipotles; or add bacon.
Best, though, is don’t be beholden to the Monastrell! Find additional wines to love. There’s comfort food and there’s paralysis; recognize the difference. If you prefer your tofu in Thai style, using coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass, a boisterous red wine is ridiculous. Rather, the Leitz Dragonstone 2008 ($17, SoPo), is super vigorous, lusty and open, surefooted and stony, with just enough polenta-y sweetness to offset your tofu’s heat.
But say you’re creating a different kind of Asian heat, more of a Chinese style with star anise, peppercorns and soy? For that, you want something more succulent and plunging. Try the best red wines you’re not drinking, Cru Beaujolais (I’ve written on these before; see my blog for the archive if you want specific suggestions), or the extravagantly terroir-yIndependent Producers Merlot 2008 ($11, Nappi) from Washington state, deep like an Oaxacan mole with cocoa, pumpkin seeds and innumerable other stealthy spices and dried fruits.
Pairing food with wine is endlessly fascinating, and you can do it in a playful, experimental way rather than anything grim and academic. There’s much more to discuss along these lines, but for some reason The Press Herald editors don’t hand me the entire Wednesday paper to play around in (something about world, national and local news, apparently).
For that reason, let’s consider this column Part One of an extended investigation into what wine and food actually have to do with each other. Next installment to come soon, and I’ll try to incorporate any comments and/or questions posted here. Thanks!