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.

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

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.

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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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.

 

Research

12 September 2012

I’m in New Orleans as we speak, doing important, life-saving research. The results will be available for public consumption forthwith.

 

Pinot Mutant

8 September 2012

The first time I heard of Pinot Meunier was back in 2004, when I visited the Pommery Champagne caves in Reims. There I learned that it is one of three grapes allowed to be used in Champagne blends (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the others). According to “common wisdom,” The Oxford Companion to Wine somewhat dubiously notes, “Meunier contributes youthful fruitiness to complement Pinot Noir’s weight and Chardonnay’s finesse.” But though we tasted Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir), we never tasted a 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne. Even then, long before Odd Bacchus was even a teeny glimmer of an idea, I was most intrigued.

In the intervening years, I’ve never forgotten about Pinot Meunier, especially once I discovered that it occasionally did appear as a varietal wine. Perhaps three or four times, I’ve even seen Pinot Meunier on a wine list or in a shop, but I never got up the courage to order it. It tended to be expensive, and I didn’t want to risk it, especially if I had to select a wine for the table in a restaurant.

Finally, at Binny’s on Marcey, I broke through the fear and plunked down $20 for a bottle of German Pinot Meunier. I mean, if anyone could make a great red wine from Pinot Meunier, it would be the Germans, right?

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Germany’s Comprehensible Sekt

5 September 2012

Try as I might, I’ve never been a fan of Sekt, Germany’s sparkling wine. Almost ever time I’ve tried it, Sekt has lacked any grace whatsoever, with huge, clumsy bubbles and one-note, unexciting flavors. My German heritage has not been able to overcome my natural, human distaste for the stuff. In researching this post, I felt vindicated by most sources I checked.

Germany produces just under half a billion bottles of Sekt each year, compared with about 250 million bottles coming out of Champagne. With that production level, it’s impossible to maintain a high level of quality. But then, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to be believed, “The average Sekt consumer buys a branded wine, and is interested neither in its method of production…nor in the origin of the base wine.” In fact, some 85-90% of Sekt is produced with fruit grown outside Germany, coming from Italy or goodness knows where in the E.U.

For some reason, Sekt has a “peculiarly domestic appeal,” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia dryly notes, “that sparkling wine drinkers in most international markets cannot comprehend, whether they are used to Champagne or New World bubbly.” Perhaps that’s why “foreign markets represent barely 8 percent of sales.”

Despite my dislike of Sekt, I decided to give it one more try. I was browsing the sparkling wine aisle at Binny’s when I noticed a bottle of Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling. One of the finest Rieslings I’ve tasted was a Dr. Loosen, so I decided what the heck, I’ll take a risk. If nothing else, I’ll save it for the end of a party and foist it on some half-drunk guests.

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An Easy Cocktail For Labor Day

1 September 2012

I love Labor Day weekend, when all of us are determined to get outside and have that one last barbeque or beachside picnic. Goodness knows that’s what I want to be doing right now, so we’re going to make this quick.

If you’re having a Labor Day barbeque this weekend and would like to serve an easy, exciting and elegant cocktail that no one has ever had before, I’ve got just the thing: The one and only Nectarini Bellini Martini.

A Bellini, that wonderful classic Venetian cocktail, combines Prosecco and white peach purée. I’ve made these myself, and I think they’re a pain. Harry’s Bar suggests hand-grating the peaches (a food processor aerates the fruit, giving you a foamy mess when you add the Prosecco), but who wants to go through all that? So forget the Prosecco. We’re going straight to vodka.

And let’s change out the peaches as well. With peaches, you can either have little bits of furry skin floating in your drink, or you can peel them. Screw that. This is Labor Day. No peeling.

Instead, secure a good supply of white nectarines, which have thin, non-furry skin. They are in season right now (in the U.S., anyway), and though some groceries don’t carry them, you should be able to find them at your local produce market or at Whole Foods. Make sure the nectarines are as ripe as possible, because you’ll want that sweetness and fragrance.

White nectarines are a must in this cocktail (or heck, white peaches). In addition to tasting sweet and fruity, white nectarines have a wonderful perfumy quality you simply don’t get from the yellow variety. They also look gorgeously pink when you blend them up. This drink would surely taste OK with yellow nectarines, but I promise you, white nectarines make a huge difference.

Triple Sec is also required. I tried this cocktail with vodka alone, and it tasted too pointy and strong. Triple Sec rounds things out and adds another layer of flavor and aroma.

Beyond that, all you need is some ice and a blender, and you’ve got yourself an unusually fragrant, fresh and refreshing cocktail:

NECTARINI BELLINI MARTINI

Two white nectarines, cut into large chunks

1 1/2 parts vodka (I use Sobieski, an excellent value for the money)

1/2 part Triple Sec

Ice cubes

Add the nectarines to the blender, followed by the vodka and Triple Sec. With my average-size fruits, I found that the cocktail tasted balanced with one ounce of booze per piece of fruit. If your nectarines are unusually small or large, adjust the proportions accordingly. The amount of ice cubes you add should approximately equal the amount of fruit.

Blend until very smooth, at least 30 seconds. Serve in champagne flutes (these are still Bellinis, after all). Two nectarines should get you about five or six full flutes.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. Cheers!