Monthly Archives: September 2012

Is Older Better?

29 September 2012

When I see an older bottle of wine, I usually can’t help but feel impressed by its age and desirous of sampling the liquid inside. Older does not usually mean better, however. Most wines should be consumed shortly after you purchase them, especially if you, like me, lack a uniformly dark and cool space in which to lay down a few bottles.

But every once in a great while, the opportunity arises to try a wine that has been aged properly, and by all means, you should take advantage of that opportunity. I remember dining at Aureole in Las Vegas with some friends a few years ago, and I was having trouble wading through the hundreds and hundreds of wines on the list. Then I spotted an Austrian Riesling that was about 10 or 15 years old.

Only a handful of whites can age well, but trusting that a wine-focused restaurant like Aureole would provide optimum conditions, I took a risk and ordered it. My friend took a sip, and though she wouldn’t profess to know a lot about wines, she always seems to be able to encapsulate the character of wine with just a word or two (as a blogger seemingly incapable of writing posts of fewer than 500 words, that’s something I envy). She said, “This wine tastes wise.” And so it did. Not big or flashy, but well-balanced and smooth, with impressive depth of flavor. I can’t imagine having an experience like that with a wine just a year or two old.

Frequently, older wines will also go through more of a change in the glass as they breathe. Sometimes this can be problematic. A few years ago, my father gave me several bottles of 1975 Inglenook Charbono, and even then, you had to drink the wine within about five minutes of opening the bottle. After that, whatever fruit and structure that remained simply fell to pieces, resulting in a drinkable but flabby, watery wine. This wine has aged too long.

More recently, I received a 2003 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva from a friend with a well-constructed wine cellar in her basement. Because it had aged in the proper conditions, it remained in excellent shape. But I didn’t think so at first — the aroma was fruity and meaty, and though the wine still felt tight, with red fruit and iron flavors, I felt flab in there as well. After 20 minutes or so, the wine had a chance to unwind and pull itself together. The flab disappeared, replaced by some pleasantly dusty tannins, deeper fruit and some real structure. After slumbering so long, the wine just needed a chance to wake up and remember who it was.

I don’t advocate aging wines on purpose unless you have one that needs to be laid down and you have a properly dark and cool place to do so. It’s too easy to simply let bottles collect dust. Before long, they’re too special to open, and then they just die a slow death on the rack. But if you do have a chance to taste a properly aged wine, don’t pass it up. And don’t decant it. You wouldn’t want to miss out on how the wine changes in the glass by over-aerating it in a decanter.

Most important, if you don’t have place in your basement to age wine, don’t age wine. Drink it now! It won’t taste any better tomorrow than it does today.

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Drink the Brown – Part 2

26 September 2012

Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, ages in an equally odd fashion as sherry (see the previous post). The best madeiras end up ageing for years, usually decades, in the attics of lodges in Funchal, cooked by the warm Madeira sun. This method is called canteiro, as opposed to the less-time consuming estufagem process which involves artificially heating the wine.

Exposing wine to high heat and wide temperature swings for decades at a time is exactly the opposite of how I was taught to treat fine wine, but it seems to work quite well for madeira. In fact, after suffering through summer after summer in a semi-tropical attic, Madeira becomes quite resilient. After all, what else can you do to the stuff? It can last in the bottle for decades or even centuries.

You’ll see standard madeira blends classified by flavor profile (dry, medium sweet, etc.), but if you’re going to buy some madeira, spend a bit more and go for one with a more specific classification, such as Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, which indicate the predominant grape variety as well as the level of sweetness. Sercial is the driest, and Malmsey the sweetest (you can read more information about these styles here and here.) These categories are then further subdivided by age.

At Stella! in New Orleans, I had a Rare Wine Company “New York” Malmsey Special Reserve, produced by Vinhos Barbeito. “Malmsey” on a madeira label indicates that it’s made from Malvasia grapes, and the words “Special Reserve” guarantee that the youngest wine in the blend is at least 10 years old. Although this is among the sweetest styles of madeira, I didn’t have it with dessert. The creative sommelier, Marc J. Doiron, paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk.

Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but amazing bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

I don’t currently have any madeira at home, but you can bet it will be on my Christmas list. I could imagine it pairing well with some roast pork with sweet potatoes, or perhaps turkey with stuffing. Indeed, madeira was quite popular in colonial America, making it a thoroughly appropriate choice for Thanksgiving. Get a bottle now, give it a try, and if you can manage to avoid drinking the whole thing, you can serve the rest to the more adventurous palates at your Thanksgiving table, assuming you have a few.

If you don’t, then I say forget hosting dinner and head to Stella! instead. It’s not inexpensive, but my goodness, the food and wine is sheer delight.

Stella! on Urbanspoon

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Drink The Brown – Part 1

22 September 2012

When considering what wine to pair with a meal, most of us consider whether a red or white would work best. A smaller percentage also toss sparkling and rosé wines into the mix. But precious few of us, myself included, give even a fleeting thought to “brown” wines, such as sherry or madeira. If any of you happen to own a bottle of one of these fortified wines, it’s likely standing next to some seldom-poured liqueurs, collecting dust, waiting to be sipped with a slice of fruitcake or something. That’s the sad state of my nine-year-old bottle of Pedro Ximinez, certainly.

A dinner at New Orleans’ fabulous Stella! showed me that it need not be so. I ordered the four-course tasting menu with the accompanying wine pairing, and I must admit it came as a bit of a shock to see a sherry paired, not with dessert, but with my first course of octopus, and then a madeira paired with my second course of veal sweetbreads. And by golly, they worked pretty darn well!

Both sherry and madeira require rather unorthodox production methods. Sherry, produced in and around the southern Spanish city of Jerez, ages in barrels, like many wines. In the case of Fino-style sherry, these barrels aren’t filled to the brim. Partially filled barrels allow “flor,” a layer of yeast, to form on top of the wine. This flor protects the wine from oxidation and also changes its flavor profile. (More strongly fortified Oloroso sherry is vinified without flor, but that’s for another post.)

The particular sherry I tasted was a Manzanilla Pasada produced by Bodegas Hidalgo from a single vineyard called Pastrana (one of the best sites in the Jerez Superior District, according to the Hidalgo website). “Manzanilla” indicates that the sherry was produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a seaside town cool enough for the flor to flourish all year long. “Pasada” indicates that the sherry has been aged longer than a Manzanilla but not as long as an Amontillado.

A straw/gold color, the Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada “Pastrana” had enticing aromas of caramel, pear and a little funk. It tasted dry as a bone, with a nutty flavor, some eye-opening saline notes and prickly acids. The acids and the hints of salinity were what really made the pairing with the rich octopus work. My stars and stripes, I could practically feel the sea spray on my face! This wine won’t appeal to everyone, but if you do like the nutty flavor of sherry, this startlingly dry version would make a great choice for an autumn dinner of fish with root vegetables.

UP NEXT: Aging wines in a sub-tropical attic instead of a cellar? It should be a recipe for disaster, but it works for madeira.

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A New Orleans Drinking Guide

19 September 2012

New Orleans’ cocktail scene has a lot more going for it than sugary Hurricanes and Hand Grenades. As wonderfully naughty as it feels to drink in the street, consider putting aside that go-cup and sipping a proper cocktail — in a glass — instead. With my readers ever in mind, I tirelessly scoured New Orleans for well-crafted cocktails, and I found no short supply. Some of my favorites:

6. A Dark ‘n’ Stormy at Herbsaint:

On a hot day, this combination of ginger beer and dark rum is hard to beat. Strong, rich and caramelly, with a ginger bite. Bar #1 (below) does these better than Herbsaint, but #1 doesn’t have Herbsaint’s fabulously refreshing watermelon gazpacho with sweet blue crab.

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5. A Jezebel at American Sector:

Gin and ginger beer also taste wonderful on a toasty day, particularly when mixed with soothing cucumber and mint. The result is very cool, very sharp, a little spicy and a lot strong. And if you’re here, for all that’s holy, don’t miss the blue crab and sausage stew.

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4. A Space Filler at Root:

This mix of rye whiskey, loganberry liqueur and lemon juice had an aroma of orange oil and complex flavors of berries, citrus and wood. Sweet and sour elements positively dance on the palate.

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3. An 1886 at the Swizzle Stick:

In spite of the best efforts of its elegant decor, this bar has a slightly sterile hotel setting. Nevertheless, I give serious kudos to any mixologist who can make such a tasty cocktail using Scotch, which is usually consumed unadorned. Glenfiddich mixed with Bénédictine, Peychaud’s Bitters and Green Chartreuse proved to be a delight. Strong and cinnamony, with a fruity start, a spicy kick and a smoky underbelly.

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(more…)

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Loire Gold

15 September 2012

I can’t yet bring myself to contemplate the vast array of cocktails I consumed while in New Orleans, so let’s start with something more easily digestible on this quiet Saturday morning: A glass of Savennières. This seldom-seen Loire wine is one of the best white values out there.

The World Atlas of Wine notes that this appellation occupies one of the Loire River’s rare steep south-facing banks, giving the wines an immediate leg up — south-facing hillsides (in the northern hemisphere, at least) receive the most sunlight and allow fruit to ripen most fully. The Atlas goes on to hail the dry Chenin Blanc produced here as “as dense and rich in substance as it is rigid in structure.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia puts it even more simply, noting that because of the favorable location and low maximum yields, Savennières produces “the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc.”

I find I can rarely afford to drink the world’s greatest anything. But drink I did. This isn’t Burgundy or Napa Chardonnay, after all. Savennières is hardly a household name, and that obscurity helps keep the price down. I found a 2008 Domaine du Closel “La Jalousie” on the by-the-glass list at Commander’s Palace, and at $14 for a six-ounce (about 1/4 bottle) pour, it’s not inexpensive. But it was worth it, and in any case, Commander’s Palace is no place for moderation.

The wine, a rich golden hue, had me at first sight, and its spicy aroma with a touch of cedar quickened my pulse a good notch or two. Sweet white fruit (like pears or apples) hit the palate first followed briskly by floral notes, ginger spice, tightly focused acids and some minerals at the end. Sheer delight. Unfortunately, its charms were overpowered by the turtle soup and the sneaky spicy heat of the redfish main course, so I was forced to order a darkly fruity glass of Morgon (a Cru Beaujolais) to compete with the fish. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But you don’t have to go to one of New Orleans’ fanciest restaurants to get a Savennières, where it might not pair well with the food in any case. Binny’s, for example, sells the 2010 Domaine du Closel for just $20, and the highly regarded 2008 Domaine des Baumard for just $23. These gorgeous wines should work beautifully with non-spicy fish, chicken, pork or pasta with cream sauce.

I spend only around $12-$15 for a bottle of wine most of the time, but now and then it’s worth it to cough up just a little more. With Savennières, you’re not paying for the fame of the name. It’s not a status symbol to own or pour a Savennières. You’re pretty much paying for the wine alone, and that’s what makes it such a stellar value.

SUMMARY

2008 Domaine du Closel “La Jalousie”: Rich, spicy and tightly focused. A little more expensive than I usually prefer, but the extra $6 or $7 buys a wallop of flavor, intensity and structure. Chill for an hour before serving.

Grade: A

Find It: Only about 30,000 cases are produced in the whole of Savennières each year, but many wine shops, such as Binny’s, will carry one or two examples. I’ve never had a Savennières I didn’t like, so feel free to take a risk on an unfamiliar producer.

 

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