- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
About ten years ago, I (along with almost 1,200 other lucky professional and avocational winos) had the pleasure of attending a career-defining tasting. Angelo Gaja, widely known as the most admired – and arguably the best – wine producer in the Piemonte region of Italy, presided over a tasting of his wines at the New York Wine Experience. The Gaja wines, all single-vineyard estate wines from the villages of Barbaresco and Barolo, were glorious, and so was his homage to the grape that brought him to the party and wine-world prominence, Nebbiolo.
Starting with the near-perfect 1997 vintage, Angelo Gaja no longer anoints his acclaimed single-vineyard estate wines with name of DOCG zones, Barbaresco or Barolo. Instead, as would be the case of the Grand Cru wines of Burgundy, he opts to emphasize the terroir of the sites: Sori San Lorenzo and Sori Tildin (in Barbaresco) and Sperss (in Barolo), adopting the more-humble DOC of Nebbiolo delle Langhe.
Warming to his already-rapt audience, Gaja decided to compare the dark and mysterious Nebbiolo (named for the fog, the nebea that seems to consume the hillside vineyards of Piemonte’s southern Langhe region) to the ubiquitous and ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Cabernet is to John Wayne what Nebbiolo is to Marcello Mastroianni. John Wayne is a strong personality. He speaks in a loud voice. He is reliable. When he comes home to his wife at night he does his duty; reliable but not exciting. Marcello Mastroianni would never be in the center of a room. He is shy. He is a closed book. He is not so reliable, but so much more exciting. And women become beautiful beside him. This is the beauty of Nebbiolo."
Gaja, standing in front of giant photo-projections of the two cinematic icons, entertained the appreciative crowd with his wit and informed them with his insight into two very different vinous imperatives. I was about to taste some of the most exciting wines of my life, my own la dolce vita, transported from Manhattan to Rome’s Trevi fountain, splashing with Anita Ekberg under the watchful and soulful eyes of Marcello Mastroianni. And the wines were very bit as mesmerizing as Fellini’s magnificent film.
Gaja, revealing extraordinary generosity, presented Sori San Lorenzo 1999 and 1978, Sori Tildin 1997and 1974 and Sperss 1998 and 1990. Just when the murmurs of pleasure and respect were about to become a near-roar, the crowd was treated to the extraordinarily vibrant 1961 Gaja Barbaresco (the same year that La Dolce Vita was released in the United States), a wine made by Angelo’s father, Giovanni Gaja. A momentary hush came over the entire ballroom, soon followed by a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation.
“Il vino è rosso” (“Wine is red") is an old Piemontese adage that has contemporary resonance, as Piedmont's winemakers struggle to work primarily, and in many cases almost exclusively, with native red varietals, especially Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, and Barbera - in a world market that thirsts for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. However, while the finest red wine producers of Piedmont are steeped in tradition, they are not standing still.
Barolo and Barbaresco are often respectively referred to as the "King and Queen" of Piemontese wines. Both wines are made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes, grown in the communes of the Langhe surrounding the small city of Alba - Barbaresco to the north, and Barolo to the southeast. Barolo, the "King" is traditionally the most assertive and complex wine produced in Italy, tannic in its youth, and elegant in old age. This profile is moderating, as the wine, which was most often made from very ripe grapes and fermented in contact with their skins for months in large chestnut casks, where the wine aged for years before bottling, has virtually disappeared from the Barolo landscape. Today, Nebbiolo grapes are picked in small bunches from cooler areas, and skin contact is limited to weeks, not months, often in a combination of stainless steel fermentation tanks and small French oak barrels for aging. Modern-day Barolo is ready to drink in from three to five years, rather than the 20 years required for the classic version.
Barolo, at its best, delivers ripe fruit enshrined in a wine of great complexity and depth and balance, with a bouquet of violets, spices, tobacco, and the heady white truffles for which the Piedmont region is so well known. Fine producers of Barolo are Ceretto, Clerico, Pio Cesare, Marcarini, Bartolo Mascarello, Elio Grasso, Vietti, Renato Ratti, Aldo Conterno, Bava, Altare, Lucio Sandrone, Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Scavino, the enigmatic Bruno Giacosa, and of course, Angelo Gaja.
Speaking of Gaja in Barbaresco, his three single-vineyards - Sori Tildin, Sori San Lorenzo, and Costa Russi - define the category, and retail for $200 or more, depending on the vintage. These wines are sold on a strict worldwide allocation basis. Not many Barbaresco wines are nearly as expensive as the Gaja, however, with most retailing at between $30 and $60. The "Queen" of the Piedmont is a full-bodied Nebbiolo-based wine, but is often a bit fresher and more graceful on the palate than the more ponderous Barolo, and might be perceived as somewhat more versatile with a wider range of foods. I have found Barbaresco also provides far more bang for the buck than Barolo, as it maintains much higher standards in its vineyards than its much larger and more famous Nebbiolo-neighbor to the south. Many of the producers listed for Barolo also produce Barbaresco, but be sure to look for Marchese di Gresy, Cortese, Cigliuti, Prunotto, Punset, Albino Rocca, Bruno Rocca, Mascarello & Figlio, Mocagatta, and the producer that most often provides great quality and great value, the Produttori del Barbaresco, a wine-making collective whose single-vineyard wines - Rio Sordo, Montestefano, Montefico, and Asili - sometimes rival the wines of Angelo Gaja, at less than one-quarter of Gaja's price, around $35 to $50, depending on vineyard and vintage.
Another wonderful Piemontese red, Dolcetto ("little sweet one," referring to the easy-ripening, tiny grape; the wine is fruit-driven, but dry) is most often medium-bodied, fresh and food-friendly, and may benefit from a bit of chilling, but Dolcetto d'Alba can be mouth-filling, complex, and even benefit from some aging. Dolcetto is another true crossover wine, an appropriate match for lighter meats, poultry, fatty fishes, vegetarian dishes (especially mushrooms), and various pastas. Fine Dolcetto d’Alba is made by many of the aforementioned Barolo and Barbaresco producers. Also look for Dolcetto di Dogliani from Abbona and Dolcetto d’Acqui from Villa Sparina.
Barbera is probably the most improved red wine produced in the Piedmont region. After generations of poorly made, oxidized wines, contemporary Barbera is a refreshing, medium-bodied wine with good acidity and balance, even elegance. Barbera from Alba, Asti, and Monferrato are held in high regard as wines that pair with a wide variety of dishes. Unquestionably, the finest producer of Barbera was Giacomo Bologna, who died in 1991 (he was much-beloved; 5,000 people attended his funeral), and whose daughter, Raffaella, continues to make his single-vineyard “Braida” Barbera d’Asti wines, Bricco dell'Uccelone ("Hilltop of the Loon") and Bricco della Bigotta (named for the gossips who sit in the chairs on the streets of Bologna's hometown, Rocchetta Tanaro). Michele Chiarlo is another fine producer, as are Bava (look for the barrique-aged “Stradivario”), Vietti, Prunotto, and Marriuccia Borio's “Cascina Castelet,” notably hard to find but worth the effort.
The classic wines of Piedmont appear on all of the best lists in America's Italian restaurants and are much admired by Italian wine aficionados, but they deserve a much wider audience. The wines are so adept at enhancing the flavors of so many styles of food that they can quickly become the exotic stars of a meal, and we can just as quickly become enthusiastic about these wonderful wines from Piemonte. We may even become obsessed, as the wines converse with and enhance the soul. Hopefully, obsession soon leads to enlightenment as we begin to understand how and why Angelo, Marcello, Federico, Sophia, and so many other Italian wine lovers commune with a glass of Piemontese vino di meditazione. Even John Wayne might admit “il vino è rosso.”
Recently, I checked in with my dentist for a cleaning and checkup. As usual, Mary Ann, the dental hygienist, chatted with me as she cleaned my teeth, and inevitably the conversation (punctuated by my silence due to scraping, irrigating, flushing, and spitting) turned to wine. When it comes to wine, Mary Ann, whose Italian-American parents made their own, knows what she likes. “No Chardonnay, no Zinfandel; it’s got to be Pinot Grigio.” I asked her if her favorite wine works with all of her food choices, and she said “absolutely.”
Then Dr. Vivian came in to have a look at my teeth and gums. “Doc,” as she is known by her staff, is a walking advertisement for dental health because she has such a beautiful smile. Mary Ann asked, “Doc, what’s your favorite wine?” Without missing a beat, Doc answered “Whaddaya got? I just love wine, all wine!”
I realized at that moment that there was only one wine geek in the room, and it was the guy in the dental chair. Mary Ann and Doc are true wine lovers. One loves her Pinot Grigio, and one just loves wine, and they both enjoy wine and food without pretensions, without rules. I was humbled by Mary Ann and Doc’s instinctual passion for wine, and I wanted to get in touch with my own instincts, my own passions.
I spend a good part of my professional life teaching and writing about wine. Perhaps the most important part of what I do as a wine educator, author, and journalist is explain how to successfully marry food and wine so that each wine enhances each dish, and vice versa. In my classes at The Culinary Institute of America, where I have taught thousands of aspiring food and wine professionals over the last 20 years, wine and food pairing takes on special significance. Because wine courses at the CIA are geared to professionals I teach my students to pair wine and food not solely for their own palatal pleasure, but for the pleasure of others, specifically paying customers. The dynamic pairing of food and wine in a restaurant environment is an important part of the guest’s dining experience, and directly impacts the reputation and financial success – or failure – of any restaurant, from the informal bistro or chain restaurant to the upscale white table cloth restaurant or hotel dining room.
Often, when I teach or write about wine and food pairing for professionals, I let my students or readers know that the guidelines for marrying food and wine for a paying customer also has resonance in the wine and food choices they make at home for themselves, their family and friends. But I also point out that in their own lives there is no reason to adopt a conservative approach to marrying wine with food. Take a chance, live a little. Really, if you’re pairing a wine that you like with food that you like, how badly can you screw up? And if you do marry in haste or error, you can learn from that experience, too.
The United States is on its way to becoming the #1 wine-consuming nation in the world (you read that right: #1 by the end of 2009 – not based on per capita consumption, but total consumption). Americans in virtually all socioeconomic strata are becoming really comfortable with wine – Olive Garden sells more wine than any other U.S. restaurant; Costco is the #1 wine retailer in the nation – and that’s a good thing, because a glass or two of wine with dinner is an affordable pleasure, a small reward at the end of the day for all of us.
As we become comfortable with wine as part of daily life, we discover wines we really like, and wines we don’t like at all. We find wines at affordable price points – right now the consumer is king or queen, as good-quality wines have never been more accessible or less expensive – and choose a few as our own “house wines.” Couples may agree or disagree about what they like. That’s OK, as each can keep a bottle or two of his or her favorites in the house to enjoy at their leisure.
Americans have become confident in their wine choices. Gone are the bad old days when wine was intimidating, the days when people felt that they had to know how to talk about wine using antiquated jargon that has thankfully bit the dust. Just as we don’t have to know everything about the food we eat to enjoy it, the same holds true for wine. It’s a real bonus that so many of us are interested in knowing the source of our food, how and where it’s grown and by whom. And let’s remember that wine is indeed a food that happens to be fermented and sits in a glass. Perhaps more than any other food (with the possible exception of cheese, another fermented food), wine can express its sense of place, and that place can be local or international. However we think about food in general, we now think of wine as another flavor, another texture, a spice, a sauce, a refreshing counterpoint. A bite of food, a sip of wine, and we’re good to go.
So, in our daily lives let’s forget the “rules” of wine and food pairing. The only rule should be eat and drink what you like, and do so responsibly. White wine with meat? Sure. Red with fish? Absolutely. Rosé with a Whopper? Knock yourself out. Bubbles with everything? A no-brainer.
So, thanks to Mary Ann and Dr. Viv for helping me see the light – and for trying so hard to get those red wine tannin residues off my teeth and for saving my enamel from white wine acids. I’m going to continue to taste professionally, and to teach aspiring professionals how to successfully pair food and wine for paying customers. But in my own life at home, with friends, with family, I think I’ll adopt Dr. Viv’s carpe diem approach.
1. Your picks for most oversipped/overhyped, time to move on:
I really do believe that overly-oaked/high alcohol Chardonnay has seen its day, and I believe the same thing about overly ripe/high alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are drama queens, produced to create a “wow” factor at the expense of balance, and to satisfy the palate of wine critics. These wines are really not very food friendly. I’m beginning to see that the members of the American wine-drinking public is being to trust their own palates, and are looking for wines that are balanced, even subtle; a very good thing.
2. Timeless classics, at any price:
• Great cuvée de prestige Champagnes, such as Salon Blanc de Blancs, Pommery “Louise, ” Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Rosé, or Bollinger “RD.”
• Vega Sicilia “Unico Gran Reserva” from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain, produced only in the best vintage years, and not released for a minimum of ten years. For me, tasting the 1962 in 1985 was my wine epiphany; I had never tasted such a great wine.
• Rare grand cru red Burgundies from classic vintages, such as 1990, 1995, and 1999. Favorites include La Romanée, Richebourg, and La Tâche (all from the village of Vosne-Romanée).
• Truly Old Vine Zinfandel from great California vineyards, such as Monte Rosso “Gnarly Vines,” or Dry Creek Vineyard “80+ Year Old Vines,” both in Sonoma County; many Old Vine Zins from Amador County (Scott Harvey, Shenandoah Vineyards, Cloud 9, Sobon, Renwood, others); Ridge, Dover Canyon, and Piedra Creek produce extraordinary wines from near-90 year old vines of the Benito Dusi Vineyard in Paso Robles, and Napa Valley’s Benessere “BK Collins Old Vines” Zinfandel, from a vineyard planted in 1922 by Chinese vineyard workers. Classic wines for the price of an affordable luxury ($20 to $50, most of them in the low $30 range).
3. Most underestimated wines over the past few years:
Europe: the red wines of Greece, which can be spectacular. The red wines of Sicily, Sardinia, and Puglia in Italy; Rioja from Spain; red wines from Portugal’s Douro Valley (better known for Port); red wines from France’s central Loire Valley, made from Cabernet Franc.
USA/North America: The red wines of Mendocino County; Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills; wines from Long Island; Riesling from the Finger Lakes; Syrah from Washington State; Pinot Gris from Oregon; Riesling from Canada.
Southern Hemisphere: Sauvignon Blanc from Chile; Torrontés from Argentina; Verdelho, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc whites from Australia, as well as Grenache from Australia for reds; New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon; South African Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
4. Top three picks for great value, at any price:
1. Vintage and “Prestige” Cava from Spain; extraordinary bubbly for under $25 (most under $20). Some to try: “Reserva Heredad” from Seguras Viudas, Freixenet “Brut Nature,” “Reserva Raventós” from Cordoniu, Juve Y Camps Reserva de la Familia, Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva, and Llopart “Leopardi.”
2. Conha y Toro “Marques de Casa Concha” line of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay. These are extraordinary single-vineyard, estate-bottled wines for less than $20. The reds are ageworthy, but enticing at a young age, and the Chardonnay is balanced, with good acidity, and subtle hints of tropical fruits.
3. Dry and off-dry Rieslings from both Germany and Australia. These are incredibly food-friendly wines with real depth of flavor and fruit. The German wines tend to have a bit more minerality and earthiness with zesty fruit flavors emerging from the background, while the Australian wines emphasize citrus fruits, floral aromatics, spice, and lightness. From Germany look for the bargain-priced Qualitätsweins from Looosen, Burkln-Wolf, Prüm, Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt, Selbach-Oster, St.-Urbans-Hof, and Baron zu Knyphausen, among many others. German Rieslings from the Mosel tend to be lighter, while those from the Rhine regions tend to be richer. Bargains in Australian Rieslings are easy to find these days from producers such as Leasingham, McWilliams, Yalumba, Jacob’s Creek, Annie’s Lane, and Alice White, among many others.
5. What to drink on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year:
As autumn turns to winter, I like to sip a warming, welcoming true Vintage Port throughout the long night, perhaps served with a Stilton blue cheese. Some classic vintages to consider: 1985, 1977, 1970, 1963
6. What to drink with baked ham:
Because of the high salt content, the more fruit and the less tannin the better. My favorite: Gewürztraminer or Riesling from Alsace, France (these whites are red wines in drag), or a fruity red such as Valpolicella Classico or this time of year, Beaujolais Nouveau. And, of course, bubbles.
7. Roast turkey:
White: Dry/Semi-dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier from California or Virginia, Rueda from Spain, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico from Marche, Italy.
Red: Cru Beaujolais (such as Brouilly or Fleurie), inexpensive (lighter) Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, crisp Rosé, such as Tavel from the Rhône Valley or Bardolino Chiaretto from Lugano, Italy.
8. Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve:
This is a traditional southern Italian feast, so think about Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, or Greco di Tufo, all great whites from Campania. Speaking of “Greco,” an ideal match: Moschofilero from the Mantinia province of Peloponnese, Greece.
9. Hanukah latkes and jelly doughnuts:
While spinning the dreidel, enjoy kosher Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc from the Galilee or Shomron wine regions in Israel with the potato latkes. Producers include Barkan, Binyamina, Carmel, Dalton, Galil, Recanati, and Yishbi, among others). With jelly doughnuts, try an Asti (formerly Asti Spumante; spumante means “sparkling”) or better yet, a Moscato d’Asti from Piemonte, Italy. Bartenura and Rashi produce kosher versions.
10. New Year's Day Hoppin' John:
A great dish, a bit on the salty side, so choose a fruity white or red, without oak and with low tannins. My favorite with this southern New Year’s classic, Champagne or other good American méthode champenoise bubbly from Oregon (Argyle), Washington State (Domaine Ste. Michelle), New Mexico (Gruet), North Carolina (Biltmore Estate), or California (Iron Horse, Roederer Estate, Gloria Ferrer, and Schramsberg come to mind.)
11. If I handed you a $20 bill to buy two wines to take to a holiday party, what would you pick?
The holidays call for bubbles, in this case budget bubbles. So, I’d choose a bottle of Cristalino Rosé Cava from Cataluña, Spain (about $8), and for a still wine I’d go with a Montevina “Terra d’Oro” Zinfandel from Amador County, California (about $12).
12. Favorite New Year's sparklers:
Brut, “La Grande Dame,” Veuve Cicquot, Champagne, France 1995
Brut, Nicolas Feuillate, Champagne, France NV
Brut, Lucien Albrecht, Crémant d’Alsace, Franc NV or
Brut, Blanc de Noirs, Gruet, New Mexico NV
Bubbly on a Beer Budget:
Brut Prosecco, Bortolomiol, Veneto, Italy NV or
Brut, Paul Cheneau, Cava, Spain NV
13. How to buy wine for a party -- how much wine per person:
Half a bottle per person is the usual guideline (that’s 2 to 3 glasses over the span of the party). Then, buy a few more bottles so that you don’t run out, or in case a guest shows up with an unexpected reveler. If it is an extended dinner party with several wines, perhaps a bit more. If most people are driving, err on the side of serious caution.
14. Best and worst wine news:
Best: The United States is the #1 wine consumer in the world (not per capita, but total consumption), and wine is now the #1 alcoholic beverage in the United States. In an era of Change, this is an exciting – and civilizing – change.
Worst: Continuing consolidation by multinational owners of wineries, and a serious reduction in the number of wine distributors, both of which can lead to a “sameness” in the wines, and discourage small wine producers who may suffer for lack of a market. Also, the impact of global warming and climate change on wine is beginning to be felt around the world, and the prognosis is not good. The issue is serious, as wine grapes are the most climate-sensitive crops in the world, like canaries in coal mines.
15. What can we look forward to sipping - grapes, vintages, growing regions, trends:
Today, the wine consumer is queen or king. We are in the midst of a serious economic collapse, and while folks continue to drink wine, they are choosing their wines more carefully, looking for bargains. Fortunately, bargains abound if we know where to look (The last chapter of WineWise, “Got Cash?”: Our Bargain Choices” is a good place to start; more than 500 great wine bargains from all over the world). So, bargain-hunting is definitely a trend.
In that vein, I think we’ll see folks trying more wines from off the beaten path: wines from Greece (all regions) , Portugal (the Douro Valley and Dão), southern Italy and islands (Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily), Argentina (Malbec, Bonarda, and the white Torrontés), Canada (Riesling and other whites). Chile will continue to be strong in Cabernet Sauvignon, but also in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. More upscale Chilean wines, but still at affordable prices, will be purchased. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will continue its rise, too. Australia has had four straight years of drought, so prices will rise, and its marketing juggernaut may be placed on pause. The inflated prices of mediocre to fair California wines will have to contract in order to compete on the world stage. I hope that people will finally discover France as a great place for wine bargains, with vin de pays and lesser-known AOC regions gaining traction in the US market. Italian wines overall will continue to dominate; the Italians have shown a real ability to read the American wine market.
I also think we will begin to appreciate our local wines – all 50 states produce wine now – which will only encourage local winemakers to do an even better job, and for all of us to decrease our carbon footprint.
And as always, I hope we Americans will be enjoying our wine with our daily meals and in moderation, to preserve wine’s place as a healthy beverage in a healthy society.
Summer should be a season for rest, relaxation, and recuperation. We still may work 9 to 5, but it’s light when we get up, and it’s still daylight when we drive home; that alone should put us in a sunny mood. And most of us can manage to get away or just goof off for at least a couple of long, lazy weekends, while the lucky ones sneak a week or two. After slogging through the wind and snow of the winter, and muddling through the season of mud that passes for spring in the Hudson Valley, we come to summer, that cherished time of year that means a life in the great outdoors of fun, friends, family, and food.
I am a Summerlover, and so are most of my friends. We live in shorts and t-shirts whenever we can, and we cook and dine al fresco every chance we get. I love to fire up the grill, and then jump in the water to commune with and meditate on the menu, which is inevitably based on what’s fresh from the garden, and what looked good at the fish market or butcher. And of course, there’s the wine...
Summer wines should be full of fruit, cool and refreshing, and as informal and inexpensive as the Summerlover dress code. When you’re relaxing and talking, or playing killer croquet, badass badminton, hard-hearted horseshoes, or simply silently swimming, you don’t want to ruminate over ponderous, serious wines full of complexity and depth. When the sun is shining, you want the alcohol to be low, so that you don’t become groggy, and are able to have safe and responsible funfunfun so that daddy doesn’t take the T-bird away. Save those big reds and oaky whites for sitting by the fireplace in late autumn, winter, and early spring, dining on lamb stews, hearty soups, and scripted meals. Just as food is seasonal -- tomatoes and corn are the cornerstones of the true Summerlover’s diet -- so is wine. So bring on the Wines of Summer: light, crisp whites, thirst-quenching dry rosés, fruity, luscious reds, and don’t forget the bubbles!
In the mood for a salad of fresh greens, studded with boiled, steamed, or grilled lobster, drizzled with a dreamy dressing of coarsely puréed watermelon, onion, and ripe peaches? What could be better with this light and simple dish than a Vinho Verde from Portugal, an elegant, dry white wine that is redolent of grapefruit/citrus, with just a bit of spritz for a refreshing cleansing of the palate.
Vinho Verde is the ultimate Summerlover’s wine; about 8 to 9% alcohol, and it’s not afraid of an ice cube or two, or even a little sparkling water for a magnificent wine spritzer. Vinho Verde is the reigning monarch of the land of ABC (Anything but Chardonnay), and she is a ruler who favors almost unbelievably progressive taxation. Vinho Verde sells for about $6, to $10. per bottle, a truly great wine value, so buy a case or two for the summer. You want to drink this charming wine as young as possible, so look for the 2009 or even better, the 2010 vintage, or in no-vintage versions check the very small print on the back label for the date of bottling.
Here is a warm weather mantra for you to channel your inner sunshine: “Summerlovers Love Rosé.” During the cool months of the year, rosé wines get little notice and less respect. Rosé is all but forgotten or ignored by wine geeks, but for wine and food lovers who adore fresh, cool flavors of orange and strawberries, dry rosé is a revelation.
Grilled salmon, served medium-rare with “creamers:” tiny roasted red potatoes and roasted summer garlic, and a salad of garden greens dressed with extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs, paired with a chilled dry rosé is nothing short of pink perfection. A wine that will enhance your food as well as slake your thirst, rosé is to summer as falling leaves are to autumn, an undeniable part of the landscape. Try the Chivite “Gran Fuedo” Rosado from Navarra, Spain, which is widely available in Hudson Valley wine shops for less than $10 per bottle.
Note: Attention, White Zinfandel fans (which is, in actuality a semi-dry to semi-sweet rosé of the red Zinfandel grape). This could be the summer to move up to a somewhat drier, but ultimately more refreshing, fruit-driven wine. Can light reds be far behind?
The perfectly grilled burger, cooked and served en plein air, is as much a part of summer’s iconography as fireworks on the 4th of July. Serve it with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and onion, salted cucumbers picked that day, a sauce of ketchup, mustard, and mayo, with just a touch of Tabasco, all piled on a sandwich contained by hearth-baked bread, with homemade potato salad on the side, and just ask yourself as you taste this American delicacy, “does it gets any better than this?”
Yes, it does.
Pair that burger with a light, fruity but dry red, like Gamay Noir from the Hudson Valley’s Whitecliff Vineyards, a Beaujolais-Villages from Georges Duboeuf in Burgundy, France, or best of all, a Valpolicella Classico Superiore from Sandro Boscaini in Veneto, Italy (each of these wines is easily under $15.). Now, take a sip and taste a second sauce, a true “secret sauce ” for that burger, revealed only to your palate. These wines smell and taste of red summer berries. The fruit of the wine harmonizes with the earthy, sweet flavors of the burger, creating a simultaneous counterpoint and complement for the sensual nexus of flavors going on in this dish.
When it comes to wine and the image of its pompous poobahs, what’s more fun than a little harmless sacrilege? I will surely be cast out of Snobovia, but I say chill these reds. That’s right, serve ‘em cool, serve ‘em cold. Why? Putting a chill on these simple reds will bring out their fresh flavors and pump up the refreshing acidity that we crave on a hot day to refresh our palates. If you taste these wines warm (made even warmer in the glass by your hand and by the sun), they might taste flat and flabby, and lose some of their many charms.
Treat these reds like whites when you enjoy them in the summer sunshine.
Sparkling wines, especially lighter méthode champenoise wines, like Cava from Spain, or New World Bubbly from the United States, are perfect aperitifs, so restorative when sipped outdoors. These wines, which sell from about $6 to $18, depending on style and producer, are also great with cold foods and lighter hot dishes. Try a Paul Cheneau Cava, or Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington State (both about $8), or if you’re making some Southwestern-style dishes, try Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico (about $15). My favorite from California is Roederer Estate Brut (about $18), a magnificent wine from a magnificent vineyard in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino. You really can’t go wrong with well-made sparklers, because they cool you down and perk you up.
The pleasures of summer are many, but fleeting. Before you know it, you’ll be shoveling snow, which, to Summerlovers, is the Hudson Valley’s cosmic dandruff. But just for now, for these precious few months of warmth and sunshine, let’s celebrate our glorious summer season with glorious summer wines.
Enjoying your favorite wines with your favorite foods is one of life’s true pleasures. You can count on the wines you like to stimulate all of your senses, to provide a focus for a great meal with friends or family, or when you’re grabbing a quick bite on your own. But let’s be honest; even though you may like what you’re drinking, when it comes to the universe of wine you may also be thinking “what else am I missing?”
The fact is that there is life beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet, and there is excitement beyond Merlot. There has never been a better time to be able to taste the wines of the world, and some of those wines are produced from grapes you have never heard of and in wine regions you’ve never considered.
There is so much great wine available in the wine shops and restaurants of the Hudson Valley. Wines to fall in love with, wines to savor, wines to pair with your favorite foods. The really good news about these great wines is that they are often great values too, and all it takes to get started on this enological journey is a sense of adventure; a desire to go off the beaten path.
We can start our exploration close to home, by tasting some fine Hudson Valley wines made from what might be considered unusual grapes. Millbrook Vineyards makes a lovely estate-bottled Tocai Friulano, a white grape native to Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Italy. Try this wine with grilled or seared scallops, fish or chicken tacos, Chinese takeout, or any lighter foods with a touch of spice or smoke. Or try the Gamay Noir from Whitecliff Vineyard in Gardiner, a red made from the only grape that is allowed in Beaujolais, France. This wine is great with a rare burger, filet mignon, roasted chicken, or a grilled salmon, as well as many Hudson Valley artisan cheeses. And don’t forget Eaten by Bears, produced at Cereghino Smith Winery in Bloomington, a non-traditional red wine made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Franc. The same folks produce a killer Rock ‘n Roll Red: a blend of Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Franc. Both of these full-bodied wines exhibit structure and depth tempered by refreshing acidity, and will marry well with hearty dishes, such as stews made from local beef, lamb, or veal.
Leaving home to go farther afield, consider some of these wines next time you want to try something new, different, and good:
The Southern Hemisphere
• from Argentina: Ever try Torrontés, a floral, spicy white? An excellent wine for fish dishes, as well as mushroom risotto, or just some fresh veggies sautéed or roasted in good olive oil. Of course, Argentina is already well known for its red flagship, Malbec, a medium to full-bodied wine made to pair with the Argentine love affair with beef.
• from Chile: If you like medium-bodied, juicy red wine, sip a good Carmenère and you won’t be sorry. Cabernet Sauvignon is Chile’s most popular red varietal in export markets, but Carmenère can be a bit more interesting: somewhat lighter in body, and extremely food friendly, this wine is great with white meats and is an incredible bargain. By the way, if you haven’t tried Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, you’re missing out on a great white: fruit-forward, with refreshing citrus-like acidity, and just the thing for poached salmon with a tomatillo salsa.
• from Uruguay: That’s right, Uruguay. I’m betting most readers haven’t had the pleasure of tasting this country’s Tannat, a full-bodied but balanced red, which true to its name features some serious mouth-puckering tannins. This is a wine for red meats and intense cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano or moderately sharp Cheddar.
• from Australia: Sure, we know about Shiraz, but have you tried a dry to semi-dry Riesling from Down Under? Refreshing, citrusy, clean, this white is just the thing for spicy Asian food or smoked fish. And the red grape that Australia does a bang-up job with is Grenache, especially old vine Grenache from the McLaren Vale region. Redolent of black and red fruits, with a complex finish, this full-bodied red pairs beautifully with cassoulet, game, or hard cheeses.
• from New Zealand: Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is ubiquitous these days, but lesser-known are its great Pinot Noir wines, especially from the Central Otago and Martinborough regions. As with all fine Pinot Noir, these wines pair beautifully with a wide variety of foods, from grilled fish, to any white meats, to leaner cuts of red meats, as well as “meatier” vegetarian dishes featuring beans and grains.
• from South Africa: I’m a big fan of South African Sauvignon Blanc, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend this country’s Chenin Blanc wines. Crisp, fruity, with a touch of peach on the palate, this white is sure to please with ceviche or poached fish dishes. (South Africa is also known for its own red wine grape, Pinotage, but I have to admit most Pinotage wines leave me cold, especially as the quality is inconsistent).
Austria: Two whites, two reds worth exploring here. Definitely try Grüner Veltliner, a white that is light-bodied, crisp, refreshing, with an underlying hint of orange zest. Grüner Veltliner has been “discovered ,” but the wine is still a good bargain. More expensive, but usually worth it are Austria’s dry Rieslings. Both of these whites are perfect accompaniments to spicy fish dishes, and smoked fish and white meats. For reds, try Blaufrankisch, a medium-bodied wine that pairs nicely with red meats and stews, and Zweigelt, a light-bodied red that is perfect for fish or white meats cooked en plein air, on the outdoor grill. By the way, Zweigelt is the same grape as Lemberger, a cult classic worth a sip from Washington State.
Italy: There are hundreds of grape types in Italy, so the question becomes where to begin? I say let’s start in Sardinia with Cannonau, which is actually the Grenache grape. Full-bodied red Cannonau wines are wonderful with rustic, rare meat dishes. From Puglia, try Primitivo, which has the same DNA as Zinfandel. Primitivo is a very satisfying red, and like its California twin, it is bursting with black fruits and spice. Terrific for white and red meats, but also for hearty knife and fork soups, such as black bean. Vermentino, grown primarily in Sardinia and Tuscany, produces a wonderful white, with bracing acidity and notes of citrus and green melon on the palate. Serve Vermentino with fish, seafood, or mollusks. The same foods create a perfect pairing with Falanghina, a delicious, mouth-watering white from Campania.
Portugal: Portugal’s premier white grape is Alvarinho, which often finds its way into blended Vinho Verde, but look for pure Alvarinho from the Moncão wine region. Another wonderful wine for fish. Touriga Nacional is the most heralded red grape in Portugal, and is an important constituent of fine Port. These days, Touriga Nacional from the Douro region is making an international name for itself as a great table wine. If you like “big” reds and “big” food, then Touriga Nacional is for you.
Spain: Albariño is the Spanish name for Alvarinho (see above). Albariño from Rías Baixas, in the province of Galicia on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, produces a delicious medium to full-bodied white, made to marry with that region’s seafood. Godello, from Valdeorras, also in Galicia, is a light to medium-bodied, juicy, refreshing white wine, and is also a perfect pairing with fish and seafood. When it comes to reds, Spain is a treasure chest, but if you’ve never tried a Mencia from the Bierzo denominación, you’re missing out on a beautiful red wine that will successfully accompany roasted white meats. If you like Merlot, but want to take a walk on the wild side, Mencia is for you.
France: The Loire Valley is known throughout the world for its tasty white wines, such as Muscadet, Vouvray, and Sancerre. Lesser-known are the terrific red wines from the Central Loire: Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny, each based on the Cabernet Franc grape. These are not blockbuster reds, but rather medium-bodied wines of great finesse and subtlety, perfect for white meats and game.
Greece: In Greece, the joys of degustation are much more important than the challenges of pronunciation. One of my favorite white wines in the world is Moschofilero, from Mantinia on the Peloponnese peninsula. Moschofilero is crisp and refreshing, tastes a bit like a cross between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, and will pair incredibly well with subtly spicy, salty, and smoked foods; it is a dream when paired with grilled sardines. Another exciting Greek grape is Assyrtiko, which produces extraordinary white wines on the island of Santorini. These wines are all about fish dishes in the tradition of the Mediterranean. Try it with a bouillabaisse or other fish stew. For assertive red wines from Greece, look for Nemea (made from the Agiorgitiko grape) and the Barolo-like Naoussa (made from the Xynomavro grape; a personal favorite).
Cyprus: This journey for new and exciting wines could go on and on; we’ve just scratched the surface. Where better than to end our travels – at least for now – at the home of the oldest, continuously produced wine in the world? Commandaria, from the Limassol region, first produced in the 12th century, is a sweet, fortified wine, perfect for cheeses (or dark chocolates) at the end of a meal, and a perfect wine to relax with at the end of our journey, as we contentedly murmur, “what’s old is new again.”
When most of us purchase a bottle of wine – either in a retail shop or restaurant – we have to make a number of judgment calls. Which wine will work best with tonight’s dinner? Do we want to stick with the familiar or try something new? Is there a particular grape varietal we crave, and if so, which producers make our favorite wine from that grape? How much do we want to spend? To which part of the wine world do we want to make a virtual journey? If you trust someone’s palate more than your own, you might even want to consider what “score” a wine received in a wine magazine or newsletter, or at a web site. Decisions. Decisions.
The good news about choosing wine in 2011 is that there has never been a time in history when so much good wine was available, and at such affordable prices. Gone are the days when you had to spend a lot to get a good, even great bottle of wine. So we make our aesthetic, geographical, and gustatory judgments, figure out what we can afford to pay, and choose a wine. It’s as easy, and as much fun as that.
But hold on. There’s another potential issue to deal with in choosing a wine, and it’s one that few of us think about very often. That issue is the vintage of the wine – the year in which the grapes were harvested. We always notice the vintage year on the label of still wine (the overwhelming majority of sparkling wines – including true Champagne - and fortified wines – unless we’re talking about Vintage-dated Port or Madeira - are “non-vintage” sometimes politely referred to as “multi-vintage”). But what, in the modern era of wine, does the vintage year really mean?
I should point out that some of the least expensive varietal-labeled wines, including “Two Buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s and [yellow tail™] at any wine shop are vintage-dated wines. At the same time, some of the rarest and most expensive wines in the world – great Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello, Rioja, fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and on and on, also display their vintage years prominently on their labels.
If you can find a qualitative difference in taste between a 2008 and 2009 “Two Buck Chuck” or [yellow tail™], then you’re either a much better wine taster than me, or suffering from some sort of delusion. Notice also that in mass-produced wine such as these two and many others there is no price difference based on vintage, and that is the way it should be. Wines produced on a mass scale are “engineered” to be predictable; to taste a certain way to please the consumer, to offer the perception of value. And perhaps in most of the wine in the marketplace, the use of vintage dating adds to that perception, because although we may not seriously consider what vintage year appears on a label, we would be disappointed to find a label without that year prominently displayed, and perhaps judge the wine to be somehow inferior. The careful inclusion of a vintage date on wine that is predictably the same on a year-to-year basis is called marketing (some might call it mass hypnosis, but that’s a discussion for another column).
We live in a world where more than 90% of the wine produced – far in excess of a billion bottles per year – is consumed within two years of vintage, and remember that we are talking about the year in which the grapes were harvested, not the year in which the wine was produced, bottled, and shipped, so that is a very small window of time from the vine to the empty bottle or box. Consider also that most wines are best consumed within two or three years of vintage and we begin to see that the old Orson Welles caveat to “drink no wine before its time” has little meaning in the world of enjoying wine as an everyday drink to enjoy with our meals. Add to this the fact that, much like the rest of the world, 95% of the wine purchased in the United States is consumed within two weeks of purchase, and at least 75% of that wine is consumed within 24 hours, and we see that Americans, who now collectively drink more wine than the citizens of any other nation, truly enjoy wine; vintage be damned.
So, has vintage lost its importance altogether? The answer is: it depends. Vintage is the last thing most people who enjoy wine think about, unless it’s to make sure that the white wine they’re buying is not too old. However, there are a small percentage of wine drinkers who pay very close attention to vintage when purchasing wine. These folks are purchasing very special wines, usually very expensive wines; wines for special occasions, dinners, and celebrations; wines that by their cost and pedigree seem to anoint the purchaser with prestige. Importantly, this category of wine consumer also includes those who buy wine not primarily as an object of pleasure but as an investment in a bottle. And this is where vintage matters.
If we take a look at the Bordeaux wine trade as but one example, vintage is all-important, because wine grapes, the most climate-sensitive crop in the world, respond to the environmental imperatives of each growing year – sunshine, rain, wind, heat, cold – and each year the wine produced from those grapes is different. The machas and doyennes of the international wine press taste each vintage of Bordeaux while it is still in barrels, and make predictions and proclamations based on their perceptions of quality. The most powerful member of the wine press is Robert Parker, who invented the 100-point scale for judging wines, and whose opinion directly impacts the price of a particular Bordeaux wine and all of the best wines of an entire vintage in Bordeaux. Tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance, based on Parker’s prognostications. Parker declared 2000, 2005, and 2009 “the vintage of the century,” with many wines receiving between 95 and 100 points, and prices for those wines followed suit.
I am not exaggerating Parker Power when it comes to Bordeaux. Let’s take a look at just one excellent red wine, Château Haut-Brion, from the Pessac-Léognan district of Graves in Bordeaux. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, Haut-Brion has a great history, and was one of only four wines (and the only wine from Graves) granted Premier Grand Cru Classé (“First Growth”) status in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. Remember that Parker declared 2000, 2005, and 2009 as extraordinary vintages. Below are current prices of various vintages of Château Haut-Brion (each price is per bottle and is followed by Parker’s score, as per the website of Zachy’s, a famous wine shop in the lower Hudson Valley town of Scarsdale, New York):
2000- $1,180 (99)
2001- 625 (94)
*Both are purchased as “Futures”, known as en primeur in Bordeaux. You must pay for the wine in full, and then wait until the summer of 2011 to receive the 2008, the summer of 2012 to receive the 2009. (By the way, Parker gave the 1989 Haut-Brion a perfect score (100 points). That wine sells for $2,400 per bottle at Sherry Lehmann wine merchants in New York City).
Clearly, in Bordeaux, vintage (and Parker Power) makes a huge difference in the cost of the wine. When you buy the wine as “Futures” you’re betting that the price will rise when it arrives in the market and will increase substantially over time. People who buy their wine this way are often thinking of the auction market for these wines, where they can sell the wines at a profit. We are not even in the same wine universe as wines that sell for say, $10 to $25, where many of us are comfortable, and where many very good wines at reasonable prices live.
Since I believe tasting the world’s greatest wines is a nonpareil and priceless experience, I am incapable of assigning a dollar sign to the joy I see reflected in the faces of friends, family, and loved ones on the rare occasions when we sip the amazing product of a very special piece of earth. Certainly, the last thing I want to think about is the market value in cold cash of each sip. While my relaxed stance might be perceived as decadent, privileged, and undeserved, I can’t believe that people would find me crazy for reveling in this fleeting but somehow eternal moment.
In Bordeaux, however, I might be locked up as a madman, dangerous to myself, and more important, dangerous to the Bordeaux wine trade. So, now we live in a world where $1,000 or more for a bottle of fine wine is considered sane. Forgive me, but I have to ask, “Who’s crazy?”
Well, maybe it is me that’s crazy, but the last time I checked the reason I love wine is the fact that it is one of life’s great pleasures. On the other hand, I thought I actually was crazy the last time I checked the performance of my 401-K retirement fund and realized that the only future I can reasonably afford to plan is death. How can I measure my sanity against these two seemingly incongruous benchmarks? What has pleasure and love got to do with profit and loss? Must we balance the indulgence of the senses with the imbalance of the cents? If we buy our wine thinking “vintage first,” maybe.