Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Meeting Of Rivals

31 May 2011

There may be an almost countless number of wine regions gracing the globe, but Bordeaux remains arguably the most important benchmark of quality. It wasn’t always so, of course. The Loire Valley once held that title, its river serving as an easy trade route into the Atlantic, from which cargoes of wine swung north to thirsty Holland and England.

That all ended in the 12th Century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II favored Gascony with generous excise tax privileges, ensuring that “…Gascony became the most important supplier of the English court and London society,” according to André Dominé’s Wine.

The Loire Valley’s still wines have languished in the shadow of Bordeaux ever since, and to the north, the sparklers of Champagne continue to eclipse Loire bubblies. But again, ”Saumur producers claim to have been in the fizz business long before the Champenois.” (Alice King, Fabulous Fizz.)

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Sometimes You Just Need A Margarita

27 May 2011

As I put the finishing touches on a giant pile of enchiladas, I mentally catalogued my wine inventory, trying to decide what might make a good pairing.

The enchiladas were a little complicated. I stuffed corn tortillas with brown rice, red peppers, caramelized onions and chorizo, and topped them with Chihuahua cheese and a homemade salsa of tomatillos, toasted pepitos, garlic, jalapeño and fresh epazote.

I’m sure I could have come up with something that would have worked, but as I stuffed my 14th tortilla, I decided the heck with it. I’m making a margarita.

A margarita, of course, could hardly be considered unusual or obscure, especially when made with distressingly fluorescent “sour mix,” a chemical concoction of corn syrup and alien-green food dye. What, then, would make for an Odd Bacchus-worthy version of the cocktail?

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Salty & Sweet

25 May 2011

Every now and then I treat myself to some saltimbocca, that classic Italian recipe in which a protein (usually chicken, pork or veal) is sautéed in sage-infused butter, wrapped in prosciutto and crisped in the oven. The rich butter, aromatic sage and salty prosciutto work wonders together.

Inspired by the succulent version I’d eaten at The Purple Pig (see the review here), I whipped up some chicken breast saltimbocca accompanied by asparagus, ramps and baby artichokes sautéed in olive oil and tossed with lemon zest. To pair with the salty, umami-rich chicken, I wanted something on the sweeter side, ideally with a touch of green to work with the spring vegetables.

I found just what I was looking for in a 2009 Huff Kerner from Germany’s Rheinhessen region. This expansive area south of Mainz has a bit of reputation mending to do — it’s the home of cloying Liebfraumilch, insipid Blue Nun and many a flabby Oppenheimer Krötenbrunnen “Qualitätswein.”

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It’s Italian! Or — Spanish? No…

22 May 2011

Recently I walked into Evanston’s southerly Whole Foods expecting to buy just a few groceries, but I discovered a deal too good to pass up:  20% off cases of wine, including wines already on sale. I nearly cleaned the place out.

One oddball that caught my eye was an organic Barbera with a Spanish name: Pircas Negras (roughly “black stone wall”).  Reduced from $13 to just $8 after all the discounts, I could hardly pass it up.

Barbera first appears in the historical record as “barbexinis” in 13th-century contracts leasing the local vineyards of Casale Monferrato in Italy’s Piedmont region. The varietal still features prominently in the region, giving its name to three DOC areas: Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera del Monferrato (unfortunately the latter can be more difficult to find in the U.S.).

What was this Italian varietal doing with a Spanish name? The Pircas Negras hails not from Piedmont but from La Rioja. But not that La Rioja.

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(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).

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Twilight

16 May 2011

In the last couple of decades, Lebanon has unfortunately been more famous for its wars than its wine. It wasn’t always so. According to André Dominé’s Wine, excavations at Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, “…have shown that wine must have been made [in Lebanon] more than 5,000 years ago.” The Phoenecians exported wine to Egypt, and the Romans erected a temple to Bacchus in Baalbek, even now the heart of Lebanon’s wine industry.

Despite this illustrious history, Lebanon boasted just five wineries as of 1991 according to The Telegraph, and Dominé’s 2001 edition of Wine also lists only five wineries: Château Musar, Fakra, Ksara, Clos St. Thomas and Château Kefraya. These stalwarts have been joined by at least 25 more wineries in the last ten years, including “boutique” wineries such as Massaya.

This winery was something rather new, a partnership between the Lebanese Ghosn brothers, Dominique Herard (owner of Château Trianon near Saint-Emilion) and the Brunier brothers (owners of Domaine du Vieux Télégraph near Châteauneuf-du-Pape). In addition to producing highly regarded wines, Massaya embraced wine tourism, opening a welcoming tasting room and the idyllic Vineyard Restaurant.

I was fortunate to find a bottle of the Massaya Blanc at In Fine Spirits, my neighborhood wine shop. I secured the last bottle on the shelf, a bottle, the clerk confided to me, that he had intended to take home the night before.

“Massaya” means “twilight” in Lebanese, or in the more extravagant translation of Massaya’s distributor, “the time of day when twilight sets on the vineyard and the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount-Lebanon.” The Massaya Blanc certainly made me want to see that sunset for myself.

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Drink It Now

13 May 2011

When traveling, I frequently buy a few bottles of the local wines and/or spirits, seduced by their unavailability in Chicago. Especially when the dollar was stronger, vinous ballast would accumulate in my suitcases until the handles buckled and the seams began to unravel.

My greatest triumph was to return from Italy with no fewer than 13 bottles of hooch divided between my checked bag and carry-on. It was January 2002 – a dollar bought 1.15 euros, and you could bring as much liquid as you damn well pleased onto the plane. Blessed memory.

Since then I’ve managed to bring my booze-buying addiction under control, partially through self-restraint but mostly through the depredations visited upon the U.S. dollar by noted economists George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  I memorably escaped from Burgundy — Burgundy — with just six bottles, and more recently, I returned from Vietnam with one lonely bottle of snake wine.

(To pack wine safely in your suitcase, I recommend slipping each bottle into three or four medium-thick socks. With my hard-sided luggage, I have yet to lose a bottle. …Knock on wood.)

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Neither Welsh Nor Riesling, Part 2: Spring Green

11 May 2011

In honor of spring, we feasted on a wonderfully green, satisfying meal of pearl barley risotto with zucchini, mushrooms and fresh basil and a side of roasted asparagus and ramps. To match, I searched for the greenest thing in my wine collection, which turned out to be a 2009 Iločki Podrumi Welschriesling.

The Iločki Podrumi winery lies on the right bank of the Danube near Ilok, the easternmost town of Croatia. Romans manning the local fortress likely maintained vineyards here, and wine certainly factored into the economy by the time the 15th-century “Old Cellar” was built. Capable of aging up to a million liters of wine, the Old Cellar reached the pinnacle of its fame when it supplied approximately 11,000 bottles of wine to the coronation celebrations of Elizabeth II.

(According to Decanter, William and Kate served Pol Roger Champagne at their reception, as I’m sure you’re all deeply curious to know.) (more…)

Iron Maiden

9 May 2011

Many people think of Teran, when they think of it at all, as a varietal, which it is, except when it isn’t.

Officially, Teran can only be grown in iron-rich terra rossa, the karst soils found in specific sections of northeastern Italy, Slovenia and Istria. “Teran” grapes grown elsewhere are merely Refosco (or Refošk). Teran then, by definition, is not just a varietal but an expression of its terroir.

I’d sampled some Slovenian Terans when I visited a few years ago, and honestly, I didn’t like them very much. They may very well have been well-crafted wines, but the notes of iron simply didn’t agree with me. I feel the same way about Bleu, Stilton and Gorgonzola cheeses — however lovingly and artisinally made they may be, I can’t get over the moldy taste. It’s a flaw, I know, but what can I do?

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Correction!

6 May 2011

I recently wrote a post about the 2009 Belje Welschriesling, and my description of the wine concerned the distributor. He thought the bottle I tasted must have been corked.

He provided another bottle for me to taste, and I discovered that he was quite right: The first bottle had indeed been tainted. In retrospect, I should perhaps have realized that notes of “aged cheddar” were not meant to appear in the nose.

I so rarely encounter a corked bottle that it hadn’t even occured to me at the time. Cork taint, according to Wikipedia, occurs in only 1.5% to 7%  of bottles, depending on whether you trust the cork industry or Wine Spectator. (The cork industry is at pains to point out that “cork taint” can also be caused by affected barrels.)

While I certainly didn’t dislike the first bottle of Belje Welschriesling, this uncorked second bottle tasted much better. (more…)

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