Monday, February 25, 2013

Southern Italian Reds—Strange Names, Wonderful Wines

One of the great things about Italian wines is that you can buy a different varietal every week and still be sampling new ones six months later. Over a thousand different grapes are vinified in Italy. This, combined with the fact that Italian wine labels often indicate the origin rather than the type of grape the wine is made from, can make walking the Italian aisle a frightening experience. But the wines are extraordinary, can be great alternatives to the usual fare, and can make you look really smart in the process.

A perfect example is a grape called Negroamaro which is grown almost exclusively in Puglia (the heel of the boot” ). When people are in the California Zinfandel aisle, I often suggest this as an alternative—same big fruit but a point or two lower in alcohol (so not as “hot” as some Zins), not over baked (some Zins get a little raisiny) and more elegant and earthy. The grape’s name translates to “black and bitter” and does have a bitter black cherry finish sometimes. It tends to be deep in color and robust and earthy with big aromas and flavors of dark fruit. Around the town of Salento, the Negroamaro is often blended with the very fragrant Malvasia Negro to make a complex big wine, Salice Salintino, which can be marvelous. We are talking about prices in the twelve to sixteen dollar range, so they are great bargains. One of my favorites is N Zero, 100% Negroamaro at $12.99. Leone de Castris Salice Salentino at $15.99 is a no brainer. 

Sicily is known for the Mafia, Mount Etna, and great food. Thanks to some up and coming winemakers, it is also becoming known for its indigenous grape, Nero d’Avola. Once mainly a blending grape in bulk wines, spectacular examples of wine from this grape are emerging and should not be missed. These wines are dark in color, big in dark fruit flavors, earth, and smoke with moderate tannins. Arianna Occhipinti is a rock star winemaker only in her late twenties who is putting Sicily on the map with her organically grown wines. Her elegant, complex TAMI Nero d’Avola shows the heights this varietal can reach—a bargain at $18.99.

When people come into the store looking for a wine to go with a ribeye dinner, they are usually standing in the California Cabernet section. I have no argument against a big, tannic, mountain-grown Cab as a great match to the well-marbled meat. Likewise, a left bank Bordeaux is wonderful. But as you might guess, the southern Italian section offers a perfect alternative.

Aglianico is a monster grape grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of southern Italy. Italian wine is my first love, and this may be my favorite varietal of all. Originally introduced by Greek settlers, it has become one of Italy’s finest grapes. The grape produces wines of huge dark fruit, massive tannins, and a bracing acidity which makes very age-worthy. The wine is known as “The Barolo of the South,” after the Nebbiolo-based Barolos of Piedmont that can age for decades (and cost hundreds of dollars). They boast aromas and flavors of dark fruit, dark chocolate, coffee, leather, smoke, and mineral. In Basilicata, these grapes are grown around the ancient volcano Monte Vulture and comprise the region’s only DOCG. In Campania, the grapes are grown around the town of Taurasi, and the wines and the DOCG have the same name.

Mastroberadino’s 2005 Taurasi Radici may be one of my favorite wines of all time. It is absolutely massive with dazzling power and depth—believe it or not, a bargain at $63.99. For the more moderate pocketbook, a humble farmer makes a version of this wine that I keep in my house at all times. San Martino Siir Aglianico de Vulture is the best $19.99 wine you’ll ever pour next to a giant medium-rare prime rib. This wine is biodynamically farmed and has a wonderful rustic quality that will hook you.

These three varietals are only a tiny sample of what you can find in the vineyards of Italy. I have customers who I take on Italian shopping trips through the store every week or two. They first come in totally lost and afraid to sample them, and before they know it, they’re addicted. As far as addictions go, there are far worse.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Aromatic Whites—Taste the Grape, Not the Oak

Far too many people limit their experience of white wine to oaky Chardonnay and the occasional Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. If they find these wines a bit boring, they tend to consider consider themselves “red drinkers.” If I’ve just described you and you’re sick of buttered oak, try the the aromatic family of wines. These wines earn their name by their beautiful, intense aromas—not from oak, as most are completely unoaked, but from their respective grape.

When I’m walking down the street trying to decide which restaurant to try, I look at the wine glasses on the table. If they are small with narrow mouths, I keep walking. That is because aromatics play a very important role in the wine experience. The senses of taste and smell are closely integrated. If you have a stuffy nose, your ability to taste is dramatically decreased. If your wine is in a tiny glass with a narrow opening it doesn’t taste near as good as the same amount of wine in a large glass with a wide bowl. Aromatic wines not only have intense fragrances, but intense flavors as well.

The flavor profiles of these wines express the flavor of the grape and even the subtle differences in terroir and winemaking because they are not masked by oak and butter. The most important trait these wines share is that they are wonderful with food. They tend to be lighter bodied, lower in alcohol, and higher in acidity—all characteristics of great food wines. Although delicious on their own, they are the darlings of restaurant sommeliers because they go so well with food—even the hard to match spicy dishes.

So what are the “aromatic white wines”?

Muscat: Perhaps the most aromatic of all, with fresh flowers and stone fruit leaping from the glass. This is the grape of Muscato d’Asti from Italy done in the frizzante (lightly sparkling) style. Try the Vietti Cascinetta ($16.99). Still wines from this grape are made in Alsace.

Gewurztraminer: With characteristic aromas and flavors of roses, lychee fruit, and spice, the best examples come from Alsace. This wine is more medium bodied and has a robust flavor that makes it a great Thanksgiving wine. Try Joseph Cattin ($17.99) and the Gold Medal by the same maker for $2 more.

Viognier: This grape comes from the upper Rhone Valley, but Australia and California also produce it. Very floral on the nose with flavors of peach and apricot and probably the most full bodied of the group, this is the only one that is sometimes oaked. Chardonnay fans should start with this one. Yalumba Eden Valley ($22.99) is big bodied example from Australia.

Riesling: The “noblest” of the aromatic grapes, the best examples of this wine come from cool climates—Germany, Austria, Alsace, and Washington State. These wines can be bone dry to very sweet. Aromas and flavors range from citrus to stone fruit to tropical fruit. The hallmark of this varietal is low alcohol, high acidity, and a striking minerality (aroma and taste of stones, limestone, or slate). These traits make Riesling an incredible wine for food matching. Kung Fu Girl ($11.99) is a nice example from Washington State that is off dry.

Torrontes: This is Argentina’s signature white grape. There are intense floral and spice aromas and flavors with a low acidity. This wine is one of my favorites with Mexican food. Try Alamos ($9.99).

Albarino This grape is from Spain and Portugal. It has a high acidity with beautiful peach, citrus, flowers, and minerality on the nose and palate. Burgans ($14.99) is a nice example.

Moschofilero: This Greek varietal produces a wine similar to Muscat, except it is drier and lighter bodied with orange-tangerine-citrus notes. A nice one is made by Boutari for $14.99.

Everything white is not Chardonnay. Next time your meal or occasion calls for a white wine, look to these amazing varietals. Even the “only red” drinker will take notice.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I’d LOVE to Come to Dinner…What Wine Should I Bring?

Making dinner for the spouse’s boss? Or someone you consider knowledgeable about wine? Afraid you’ll look ignorant by serving the wrong wine?

Don’t panic. Though the Sommelier at the local five star restaurant might like you to think otherwise, food and wine matching is not rocket science. Today I’ll give a few simple survival tips to make you look wine savvy and make your dinner a success.

First, don’t ask what’s on the menu. That way, your bottle of wine is just a gift, and if the person making dinner knows wine, he’d probably rather open his own anyway. Of course, this won’t work if you already know what’s for dinner or if you are the one preparing the meal.

When matching a wine to a meal, consider these three components:

Structure – body/weight, acid and sugar levels

Flavors – The five basic flavors perceived by the taste buds are sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami. The last one is tough to explain. It’s a “savory, meaty pleasant taste that gives a sensation of coating the tongue.” However, there are millions of “flavors” which affect the taste of other foods and of wine.

Textures – soup vs. steak vs raw oysters.

Now, some basic rules to live by:

  1. The body and weight of the wine should match the food (light with light, full with full.) Otherwise one will overwhelm the other. If the wine is lighter bodied, it must be powerful enough in flavor and high enough in acid to stand up to the food. If you are having a simply prepared chicken dish, a Cabernet Sauvignon will completely overwhelm it If you are having a grilled rib eye, a Pinot Noir or a light white wine probably will get lost.
  2. Alcohol balances weight and body in food. Alcohol accentuates spice – big time - and provides great balance to sugar and salt. If you are making a ham, the sweetness and saltiness of the meat would work well with a wine with a higher alcohol level. Sweetness and fruitiness also work great with salt and spice. A big California Zinfandel like Saldo by Orin Swift, with its highly extracted fruit and high alcohol, works great. However, if you are having a spicy chile con carne, the high alcohol in the wine will make dinner literally a painful experience. This is why the best wine match for Indian food is beer, with its low alcohol compared to wine. If you want to do white with your salty ham or your spicy Thai food, go with one a slightly sweeter one – perhaps a nice Riesling from Germany like Dr Loosen Blue Slatelate Kabinett. Acid is really important. Acid is the component in wine that makes you salivate and makes your eyes involuntarily close when you sip it. It also stimulates you to eat and drink more. It balances food and seems to separate and bring out the highlights of food ingredients. The acidity in the wine must match or exceed the acidity of the food or the wine will appear dull and flabby. The best wines to drink with food have a naturally higher acidity, which is why old world wines, with their higher acidities and lower alcohol, work so well with food. New world wines, with their higher fruit concentration, higher alcohol, and lower acidity, are better by themselves. A glass of high-acidity Chianti might not be very pleasant by itself, but have pair with a plate of pasta in a tomato based sauce (a high acid dish) and it shines. A low acid red like a California Cabernet won’t work as well with this dish.
  3. Oak, especially in white wine, does not always enhance its “food friendliness.” Oak rounds out a white wine and gives it flavors of vanilla. These wines also undergo a specific type of fermentation that gives them a buttery flavor. Vanilla and butter don’t go particularly well with a lot of simple dishes made from seafood and chicken, so a heavily oaked Chardonnay will overwhelm them. Higher acid wines with more vibrant fruit not hidden by oak often work better, like a Calera Fiano from Sicily or a Sancerre from France. Oak works much better with red wines, adding complexity and roundness that reins in the fruit a bit. Rich braised meats like Osso Bucco are amazing with a well-oaked Barolo like Roagna or a Bordeaux.
  4. Tannins can be your friend…or not. Tannin is the component of red wine that makes you feel like you have a clove in your mouth. It dries your mouth and gums. It is a preservative in the wine and originates from the skin and stems and from oak barrels. As a wine ages, the tannins soften, which is why aged red wines become easier and more pleasant to drink than at release. Tannins interact beautifully with fat and protein. The tannins become soft and almost sweet and the meat becomes juicier to the senses and more savory. This is why the classic match of a ribeye with a big tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja, or Brunello works so beautifully. But tannins work poorly with acid, so don’t drink your Cab with lasagna, and if you drink a tannic wine with fish, not only does the red overpower the fish but the tannins get a metallic taste so the wine performs poorly. If you like red wine with fish, get a light to medium bodied wine with good acidity and little tannin. Beaujolais from France or a fruity Pinot Noir works just fine.
  5. Sauces often dictate the wine, as does the method of cooking. If you are making seafood in a white garlic sauce, the dish needs a white wine. If you are cooking it in a marinara sauce, you need a high acid red like Mauro Molina Barbera. If you are grilling your beef, a nice Malbec, like Durigutti or Renacer Punto Final from Argentina works great. If you are going to braise it, a nice oaked wine with some age to soften the tannins works better.
  6. If the food is from there…go with the wine from there. If you are having Seafood in a white or simple sauce, try a white from Sicily where they eat seafood every meal. If you are having southern Italian food, Southern Italian wines will go great. Lamb is everywhere in the southern Cotes du Rhone. Wanna bet on a red Cotes du Rhone red working well? Argentina is famous for its grilled meat. Argentinian Malbec is about as good as it gets with barbeque.
These are just a few things to think about when matching your food and your wine. Most of all go with what you like and know. If you’ve never had Alsacian Gewurztraminer, don’t try it for the first time with your dinner if you’re not willing to suffer the consequences of a good match. Red wine with fish, Champagne with popcorn…whatever works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask your local wine merchant. Many have a good knowledge of what works. This is especially true with tough matches. Are you having artichokes, asparagus, and eggplant? They'll know you need Gruner Veltliner. Cheers!