Thursday, April 17, 2003

Thursday is Winesday

Since I missed Winesday last week, I’ll give you three recommendations this time. The first two are from Friday night’s dinner with friends that you have by now heard about several times.

It is a very great challenge, on a Lenten Friday, to feed non-vegetarians who don’t eat seafood, especially when one of them isn’t a big fan of cheese. They are accustomed, like Central Asian Sheiks, to meat with every meal, and taking it away means the meal needs another big asset. I chose to stake the success not only on the food, but on the pairing of wine with it.

Since the appetizer was fresh, homemade pico de gallo (chunky garden salsa) and chips, I greeted my guests with a bit of dry sparkling wine. (Jargon alert: Champagne is all well and good, but it’s also a very specific wine, from a very specific place in France, no matter what your television tells you. If it’s fizzy, and not marked “AOC Champagne” or “Champagne appellation control” it’s sparkling wine, not Champagne. That, by the way, is not necessarily a sign of poor quality; in fact, the opposite is more likely true. If it is called Champagne, but not actually from that part of France, it is probably of somewhat poorer quality than other choices. There are excellent sparkling wines from other parts of France, from Italy, Spain, Australia, and California. New York State even shows real promise, specifically Long Island.) Since the salsa was spicy, a dry wine was called for to avoid being overpowered or dampening the taste of the chilis. Langlois Cremant de Loire ($10.50) was my choice. (“Langlois” is the vintner, “Cremant” is a term for certain French sparkling wines, and “de Loire” indicates the region from which it came: the Loire valley.) Langlois makes it fizz primarily from the Chenin Blanc grape (which should not be confused with that awful stuff Gallo sold under that name in the late 70s and early 80s), mixed with a bit of Chardonnay (the major grape in most Champagne), Cabernet Franc (most French fizz has some red grapes involved unless it is labeled “blanc de blancs”) and a minor grape called “Grolleau,” about which I can tell you nothing that matters. This wine is absolutely bone dry, with a mild, pleasant “nose” that had almost a freshly mown field, “grassy” touch to it. It’s sparkle held up well for the 45 minutes from opening until we sat at table. The medium body and very pleasant mouth feel worked very well with the salsa, and its pleasant, soft flavors and high acidity meant it didn’t get overpowered. Langlois-Chateau is a very well regarded producer, and I can see why.

Dinner proper was a bit trickier to pair. The main course was pasta carbonara, which is spaghetti (fresh from our neighborhood pasta store) served in a sauce made up primarily of heavy cream and parmesan cheese (with a bit of Italian bacon, pancetta, thrown in for flavor, and a small diced tomato for color). Accompanying it were a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette, and a green salad with homemade croutons. The problem is, vinegar destroys wine flavors, and I had two possible sources of it. The cream-sauce pasta pointed towards a light to medium white, but the salad and tomatoes pointed to something heavier, or even other than wine if I couldn’t limit the vinegar. I managed that last part by dressing the salad with a drizzle of olive oil and the juice of a lemon, plus a smidge of salt and fresh ground pepper. Then I had only the vinaigrette to worry about, and knew that the cream sauce would help there—a bite of the pasta would eliminate the vinegar effect, something the guests would no doubt realize before long.

So, what then to serve? Well, there are really two white grapes in the world that wine snobs praise above all others, and I only love one of them: Chardonnay (not my favorite); and Riesling. Don’t let all that stinky Liebfraumilch that has been sold recently fool you (by the way, I like some liebfraumilch, especially in August, when you can drink it by the gallon for less money than cheap beer): Germany produces some of the world’s great white wines. In fact, you should be grateful to the Blue Nun people: their mediocre product has helped keep demand for (and hence the price of ) German wines depressed for years.

According to The People Who Declare Such Things, 2001 was a truly spectacular vintage for German and Austrian Riesling. The weather was perfect for concentrating fruit and sugars in just the right proportions, and even some of the sub-par producers managed to turn out some pretty good wines this year. But with guests coming, I had to look for something a little more certain.(I started to give a lesson on German wines here, explaining how the markings on the label work, but it was quickly getting too long. Since the Reisling-drinking season is almost upon us, I will save it for another Winesday. But I will tell you this much: When choosing German wines, stick with wines marked at least QbA, and try for QmP, which are quality levels defined by the government.) We drank what turned out to be perhaps the best $10 bottle of wine I have ever had: Karl Erbes Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2001er. (“Karl Erbes” is the producer, “Ürziger Würzgarten” designates the particular village where the wine was made, and “Kabinett” indicates a riper grape than plain Riesling, but less than Spätlese or Auslese. Generally, the riper the grape, the sweeter the Riesling.)

Some wines really require a good long sniff to get the bouquet off them, but not this beauty. Before the cork was off the screwpull, the magnificent scent of fresh flowers and apple orchards was climbing into my head. A few deliberate sniffs with my nose just above the wine in the glass confirmed that more than just plain Reisling was going on here. It has a delightful pale, apple color, and its surprisingly full body (surprising because the wine is unusually light in alcohol at only 8.5%) just coat the mouth with overwhelming tastes of apples, peaches and citrus, with a soft sweetness that is simply magnificent. If I sound rapturous, I was: I have had some really excellent Rieslings before, but none this good for this price. (Imagine what I might sound like if I ever get my hands on one of those Riesling produced in quantities of a few dozen cases only!) If you cannot find Karl Erbes, look for other Rieslings made in the Ürzig region, but stick with Kabinett or Spätlese, and you will very likely find something very similar to the delights I found. (The village is located in the Mosel-Sarr-Ruwer region, where on the whole the wines are good, but I would ask the wine guy about specific villages.)

Dessert was another tough thing to match with wine: chocolate. Specifically, frozen chocolate Tortoni (whose recipe may be found in the St. Blog’s Cookbook). Now, I personally find that big bold spicy reds go very well with dark chocolate, but wine writers seem to have agreed to complain about how hard chocolate is to pair with wine. On the other hand, I also agree with the solution most writers offer: Porto. Specifically, Tawny porto. Since I can’t afford really good Port, I tend towards palatable cheap port, Offley’s in particular, though Fonseca’s low-end Tawny is also not bad.

At the end of the day, though, I’d say the meal was a success, since we finished eating around 8:15 or 8:30, and the guests lingered over the port until 11. And, never having made such an effort to match just the right wine with each part of the meal, I wound up finding the challenge of (mostly) meeting Lent’s restrictions while pleasing finicky guests to have been one of the more enjoyable puzzles my kitchen has offered in recent years.

* * * *

And speaking of big, bold, spicy reds, the Porto wasn’t really a “Kairos Guy Recommends” kind of moment, and I promised you three wines. My final recommendation, reaching to the upper end of the Kairos list’s price range at $16-17, is Atlas Peak 2000 Sangiovese (Napa Valley). This is a wine that benefits from decanting an hour or so before serving. A rich, dark red color, it has the earthy nose of most big Italian wines, and, even though it is made in California, retains much of the Italian style of Sangiovese, one of Italy’s most important grapes, best known to Americans in Chianti. There is very little that is subtle about this wine. Its spicy, peppery, coffee flavors don’t sneak up on you so much as jump up and down on your palate like a favorite nephew on your new trampoline. The tannins lend it a nice body and structure, but if you don’t aerate the wine by decanting or an awful lot of swirling in the glass, they will increase the pucker factor significantly in your first few sips. This is not a wine for someone who thinks Merlot is really strong and exotic, but for those who like their reds to finish cooking the rare steak for them, you really can’t go wrong with this one.


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