Monthly Archives: February 2013

Pairing Wine and Food: Why Burnt Ends and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Will Stoke Your Palate

Manzanilla and Fino Sherry with Iberian tapas from Tertulia, NYC

Last week, I opened a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape to drink with takeout from Fletcher’s BBQ. I wasn’t really thinking about the pairing, although perhaps “big red and big food” subliminally guided me to pair the Southern Rhône with charred hunks of meat. I’ll leave the review of Fletcher’s to our food experts, but I can say authoritatively that a bite into a burnt end after sipping that wine resulted in a heavenly smoke-and-spice combo reminiscent of a campfire crackling with fat drippings.

This got me thinking about food pairings, which don’t have to be complicated and shouldn’t evoke sitting for the New York Bar Exam. Ignore all those articles offering recipes with esoteric ingredients and overly precise pairings with wines you can’t find. Instead, arm yourself with a few easy concepts to elevate your daily dining from mundane to divine — because eating BBQ should always be a transcendent experience.

Here are the basics:

Match Weight and Body

Heavy foods like a lamb stew or rib roast call for a full-bodied wine, so reds are the usual choice. But the key here is body, so a big white like an oaked California Chardonnay, might be a better match than a daintier red such as Zweigelt from Austria. The same rule applies to lighter foods. Generally, fish is complemented by more delicate wines, so many whites fit the profile, but so can light-bodied, low-tannin reds, thereby debunking the myth “white with fish, red with meat.” Also consider your sauce: fish smothered in lobster and cream is no longer delicate (nor low-fat.) Example: Dolcetto and Cioppino (fish stew with tomatoes)

Marry Flavor to Flavor
Flavor intensity is not the same as weight. A potato is heavy but low on flavor, whereas asparagus is pungent but not hefty. Chardonnay can be full-bodied but low in flavor; Riesling is a lightweight wine with intense flavor. Intensity in both the wine and food should be equivalent, or else one will overpower the other. The cooking method also plays a role in flavor intensity; for instance, steaming versus roasting versus smoking. Example: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Burnt Ends/BBQ

Pair Acid with Acid
Drink a tannic red wine with a salad dressed in vinaigrette to experience the ultimate food-and-wine clash. Sadly, this combo often leads people to think they don’t like the wine, when in fact the pairing was the problem. Sour flavors in food dull the wine, so you need a lot of acid in your vino to keep things refreshing. When dining, be mindful of acidic ingredients like tomatoes, lemons, limes, apples and vinegar. Example: Sauvignon Blanc and Ceviche

Try Sweet with Sweet
Dry wines can become mouth-puckering and tart when paired with food that possesses even a smidgen of sweetness. Sweet food is best with wines of similar sweetness, whether it be a honey-baked ham with sweet-potato mash or pears poached in red wine. Example: Moscato d’Asti and French Toast with Fruit

Fat and Protein Like Tannin
Most of us non-vegetarians are familiar with the mouthful of magic that occurs when combining a meaty, marbled steak and a powerful, highly tannic red wine. The tannic effect softens when it reacts with the protein and cuts the fat. However, leaner cuts with high protein content, like a tri-tip, don’t need as aggressive a wine; try a Malbec instead. Example: California Cabernet Sauvignon and Grilled Ribeye

Oily and Salty Dislike Tannin
Tannic red wine and an oily fish like mackerel can result in a metallic taste, while tannins turn bitter with really salty foods. Acid cuts through oil (think of an oil and vinegar salad dressing), and salt benefits from the refreshing zip of acidic wines. Salty foods also work well with sweet wines; consider how well pretzels dipped in chocolate or prosciutto and melon go together. Example: Champagne and Potato Chips or Truffle Salt Popcorn

Heat and Sweet
Spicy food is a category ripe for disaster when paired with a high-alcohol or dry, tannic red wine. You’ll start a five-alarm fire in your mouth as alcohol fuels the effect of spice. Instead, lower-alcohol wines with a touch of sweetness keep the heat in check. Example: Off-Dry German Riesling and Sichuan Cuisine

Regional Wine with Regional Food
Try pairing wine and food from the same countries/regions. The locals probably spent centuries perfecting their cuisine, so follow their lead. Example: Manzanilla Sherry and Spanish Tapas

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The Truth About Vermouth

Atsby Vermouth on the streets of Manhattan

If you missed my Village Voice column Unscrewed, here is your second chance at vermouth…

I peered into the liquor closet — yes, I have a closet devoted to booze, not shoes — and there it was: A dusty bottle of Martini & Rossi Vermouth that had been opened and left untouched for years. Since I don’t drink many martinis at home — what else was vermouth good for? — I admit to neglecting this singular item in my liquor arsenal.

But as bartenders tending the nation’s cocktail renaissance breathe new life into old ingredients, vermouth is getting its groove back.

Vermouth is a wine fortified with spirits, flavored by an infusion of botanicals, historically gathered in the wild (how quaint!). The classic version was dry and bittered by wormwood, but the category is quite elastic since sweet, faintly herbal versions exist, plus everything in between.

The Italian and French have been drinking it as a beverage, not just using it as a cocktail ingredient, for centuries. Vermouth had a stint of popularity in the States, but pretty much disappeared after the 1960’s in part due to an image of being, well, disgusting.

Neither bartenders nor home cocktail enthusiasts were ever instructed to treat vermouth as perishable or requiring refrigeration. It languished on shelves and soured in bottles. Dry martinis got even drier. Imagine uncorking a Chardonnay and leaving it open for six months or years — would you want to add a drop of that to your drink?

Even when shelf-life was respected, lack of demand left drinkers little choice butbland, mass-market renditions like Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. Now, like discovering how great beets don’t come from a can, we’re learning more about vermouth’s potential.

To tackle the hole in the artisanal market, NYC bartenders, er, mixologists, have begun crafting in-house versions, namely at East Village bar Amor Y Amargoand uptown restaurant Rouge Tomate. For the rest of us at-home boozers, there has been a wave of domestic and international bottlings hitting retailers; if you prefer to keep things local, then look for new brands Atsby and Uncouth Vermouth. Both have dramatically different points of view, demonstrating the range this category of hooch carries.

Atsby founder Adam Ford began experimenting with different versions in his downtown Manhattan dwelling. Another lawyer who ended up in the booze industry, Ford fell in love with the drink while traipsing across Europe.

The brand comes in two versions: A dryish blonde called Amberthorn, and the slightly sweeter bourbon-hued Armadillo Cake. Both are made using a base of North Fork Chardonnay, fortified with apple brandy from the Finger Lakes. To create his unique infused flavors, Adam sources roots, spices, herbs, flowers, seeds and pods from all over the world.

I tasted both and found their complexity intriguing; either could enhance a cocktail or be sipped neat or on the rocks. The Amberthorn in particular delivers layers of flavor, thirty-two to be precise, including a lovely hint of lavender.

Hyper-seasonal Vermouth from Uncouth

If you prefer cocktails that reflect the farmers’ market, try Bianca Miraglia’s seasonal line of Uncouth Vermouths. Using Red Hook Winery for both the base wine and fortifying grappa, Miraglia has experimented with various fruits, spices, root vegetables, even squash. She sources ingredients locally, including Stone Barns for herbs and Long Island for mugwort (a relative of wormwood) used to bitter the blends.

Unfortunately, the line has not made it to retailers yet; Miraglia was working out of Red Hook Winery which was devastated after Hurricane Sandy. However, she is optimistic about a late winter launch and is avidly sampling the remainder of her current line-up for future allocations.

Given the small batch production, degree of seasonality and growing demand from bars and restaurants, getting a bottle might be difficult, but worth it. The Beet-Eucalyptus and Butternut Squash are delightfully unique, and the stellar Pear-Ginger pops in your mouth. Alternatively, you can taste Miraglia’s work at Rouge Tomate; a debut of her vermouth collaboration with wine and beverage director Pascaline Lepeltier should be ready in a few weeks.

If you drink dry martinis like Roger Sterling, then expressive vermouth may not be your thing. The new styles have evolved from listless wallflower to serving up sass. But I happen to like character in my cocktail. As for that sad bottle of Martini & Rossi? The garbage truck picked it up this morning.

New York Negroni
1 ounce gin
1 ounce vermouth (try Atsby Armadillo Cake or Uncouth Beet-Eucalyptus)
1 ounce Campari

Shake well with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel if you’re feeling fancy.

Where to Try:
Rouge Tomate, 10 E 60th Street, 646-237-8977
Amor Y Amargo, 443 E 6th Street, 212-614-6817
Employees Only, 510 Hudson Street, 212-242-3021
Experimental Cocktail Club, 191 Chrystie Street

Where to Buy:
Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500
Le Du’s Wines, 600 Washington Street, 212-924-6999
Vestry Wines, 65 Vestry Street, 212-810-2899

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Need a blizzard-ready red? Try Virginia’s Boxwood Estate

Boxwood Estate Topiary

Boxwood Estate Topiary 2010

I embraced the East Coast snow (slush in NYC) last week as an opportunity to plunder my wine closet in search of robust reds, and drank one, quite appropriately, from the Atlantic side of the States.

The bottle came from Boxwood Estate in Middleburg, Virginia, given to me by my D.C. dwelling sister. Having gone to school in Virginia, I was quite familiar with the relatively unknown but generally good wines around the Monticello and Shenandoah Valley AVAs, but I had not yet tried a wine from Middleburg. In fact, the AVA was only recently approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in September 2012.

Middleburg, located 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. and an easy drive south of hectic Baltimore, is now the state’s 7th AVA. The region is hemmed in by the Potomac River to the north and the Blue Ridge mountains to the west. Virginia is known for Bordeaux blends, Cab Franc, Viognier and Petit Verdot, although plenty of other varieties are grown.  The newest AVA sports a growing number of wineries and vineyards spread throughout the approximately 200 square miles of bucolic horse-and-hunt country bliss.

If you have never been to Virginia equine country and driven past myriad Colonial and Civil War-Era homes, through picturesque stone-hewn towns and deep into the rolling, horse-dotted hills to which white picket fences lazily silhouette, then you should. The omnipresent sense of history in which VA wine country is steeped feels markedly different from the sunny, easygoing farmland atmosphere of Sonoma or certain moneyed, dare I say “Disneyfied” sections of Napa.

The campaign to establish the AVA, begun in 2006, was spearheaded by Rachel Martin, Executive Vice President of Boxwood Estates and daughter of the owners. Thus, I suppose it fitting that the first bottle of Middleburg AVA wine I taste be theirs.

Since I have not visited the winery, I can’t speak to its appeal or degree of sophistication other than through hearsay; my sister went and found the facilities brilliantly designed. She has an architecturally inclined eye, so I believe her, but you can also see from their website that a lot of care was put into the construction.

As for the wines, preeminent winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt is consulting, so the results couldn’t be that bad (unless he has taken up as a con artist.) Derenoncourt, considered one of Bordeaux’s and now California’s greats, probably comes at great expense. Plus, 100% percent of the grapes are estate-grown, hand harvested, with primary sorting done in the vineyard—not a cheap operation. But the owners, Rita and John Kent Cooke, the former Washington Redskins owner and president, are probably flush.

So, does money buy you good wine? Hell, yeah! Not that I doubt the level of care, appreciation and hard work that went into this operation, but having green helps you do all those things.

The wine I tasted was the 2010 Topiary, a Cab Franc dominated blend with Merlot. As a reminder, tasting notes are only a snapshot of a wine’s moment in the glass. I found a lovely earthiness reminiscent of Bordeaux, with plummy, forest berry fruit and a tinge of green, garden herb. Notes of cocoa and brambly/underbrush qualities came through on the deep, full but restrained palate. Very elegant, I hate to say, for a Virginia wine. But maybe this is the new state of the state’s wines? Hopefully.

Virginia is known as the birthplace of American wine, although the founder of vinous culture, Thomas Jefferson, was never able to squeeze a drinkable bottle out of the fruit of his vines. I would say T.J. would not only be thrilled with Boxwood, but also with his state’s evolution into the high-quality wine-producing region he always envisioned it could be.

A perfect red for the winter

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The Lightness of Being Australian Chardonnay

Aussie Chardonnay Tasting

Aussie Chardonnay Tasting @ Corkbuzz

Today’s Topic: Chardonnay from Australia. Writing that took a lot of nerve, so please refrain from grumbling and hear me out. I probably elicited a cask’s worth of groans over my Shiraz post last week; maybe you are wondering how I can now press you to read about Chardonnay. Where are the Hungarian whites? The Romanian Pinots? Even the Australian Pinots! I will be getting to those too, promise.

Remember, the point of this blog is to not just uncover regions and wines you’ve never met, but to revisit categories whose cobwebs deserve to be dusted off. Carrie gave Mr. Big a second chance and they ended up married–yes, I just referenced Sex and the City and it felt icky, but I’m trying to make a point here. Should Australian Chardonnay get another shot at your affection?

As I mentioned in my Shiraz piece, I am in an ongoing Wines of Australia immersion class during which we explore different regions/styles/varieties in each session. This week we sampled Chardonnay.

I admit to never, ever, ever, never reaching for a bottle of Chardonnay, ever. Not when sitting down to dinner at home (truth be told, we eat sitting on the couch, but still) nor for a post-work aperitif with the ladies; not ever at a wine bar with a long list of white Burgundies (value problem in this case) nor when a restaurant only offers a choice of either Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Well, maybe then, but if that’s the extent of their wine program, I should probably be ordering a cocktail. Simply. Never. Do. I. Drink. Chardonnay.

Now that you know how low Chardonnay ranks on my personal beverage totem pole, here are 5 Australian Chardonnays that I would not only drink if I had to, but would twist open on my couch, sacred place that it is, because I want to. This demonstrates an overarching principle that I too must be reminded of: We have one shot at this life; always keep an open mind.

We tasted through two flights of wines populated with pretty examples of how refreshingly different Chardonnay can be. In fact, one reason Chardonnay is so loved by growers and winemakers is for its adaptability and malleability: Stainless steel; lightly oaked; Mediterranean sun; cool climate. Each unique set of circumstances and choices provides a distinct rendition on a general theme.

I prefer a lightness and brightness in my white wines; imagine the weight of a balloon drifting into the sky and the brilliance of a sunlit diamond. Many of the Australian Chardonnays showed those qualities and were fresh, perfumed, and perhaps most important to consumers, competitively priced. Gone were the heavily oaked, dull palates of many earlier forms of Aussie Chardonnay.

Australia does some other varieties extremely well, in ways that no one else can touch: Inimitable Clare and Eden Valley Riesling, and Hunter Valley Semillon, for example. So, I can’t agree I believe the way to America’s heart should be through Chardonnay, but at least these wines prove they have a place on the wine drinker’s table—or couch.

I have included some tasting notes with each wine. Truth be told, the personalities of each wine evolved so much, that each note is merely a snapshot of a moment in a glass.

  1. Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise Unoaked Chardonnay 2011, Mclaren Vale, SA, $12.00: Refreshing, good value offering mandarin-orange aromatics and peaches and pear on the palate.
  2. West Cape Howe Chardonnay 2011, Western Australia $17.99: Bright and fresh with kiwi, guava and lemony-citrus notes busting out of the glass.
  3. Stonier Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula, VIC $20.00: Elegant and lively showing ripe lemon and stone fruit laced with minerality. Interesting savory note on finish.
  4. Heggies Chardonnay 2011, Eden Valley, SA $20.00: Jasmine and orange-blossom evolve into ripe white fruits and citrus with an herbal edge. Well-balanced and priced.
  5. Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Yarra Valley, VIC, $35.00: Obvious but lithely applied oak-influence, balanced with bright apple and notes of garden herbs. Delicious.

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Dunstan Wines: Great Wine from Savior of American Mustangs

A little luck in the vineyard never hurts

A little luck in the vineyard never hurts

Last week my mother, enduring animal lover that she is, forwarded me a story about the poisoning death of ten endangered Malaysian pygmie elephants. The story reminded me of another article I read on the tragic increase in South African Rhino poaching for their “cancer-curing” horns (scientifically disproven). The list of human v. animal atrocities goes on, and the bottom line is: Humans can be pretty shitty.

So it feels like exception rather than rule to catch a story about small but important victories occurring in animal preservation. Our Federal Government has a history (some say nasty) of wildlife mismanagement (wolves and bison, for example), yet apparently 115 wild American horses, saved from a public auction by Ellie Price nearly 2 years ago, were finally relocated to their permanent, protected refuge. Why am I writing about this in a wine column? Ellie Price is both owner of renowned Durrell Vineyard in Sonoma County and producer of Dunstan Wines.

Price, as passionate about horses as her wines, stopped the slaughter clock on a group of wild mustangs essentially held on equine death row–awaiting auction–by the Bureau of Land Management, ironically tasked with protecting them. Although the BLM takes a public stand that they are seeking to find homes for the horses when they are rounded up and sold, the reality is that they are often bought by meat buyers for slaughterhouses across our borders. Of course, the reality is actually much more complex than I can properly cover in this piece, so for further info you can start with the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. Fortunately for the lucky lot of horses saved by Price (and any future horses), she founded a 2,000-acre wildlife refuge in Willows, California for their long-term placement.

I love this story because Dunstan wines are excellent, and it’s a pleasure to promote the product of someone doing good things both inside and out of the winemaking world.

Durell Vineyard, named after former owner Ed Durell, has provided fruit for some of the finest wines in Sonoma since the early 1980’s. Price and her former husband Bill took over the property and surrounding ranch in 1998.  The Dunstan label was added in 2005 with the replanting of the “Ranch House Block” of the vineyard exclusively for the line. The name and logo were inspired by an old, large horseshoe found in the field during replanting, considered an omen of good luck.

Durell Vineyard spans three appellations: Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and a small corner of Carneros. The Ranch House Block has a distinct climate from the rest—cool coastal fog in the morning, and warm afternoons, brushed by winds from the Petaluma Gap. This climate differential allows for supple fruit with crisp, bright acidity. Only 600 cases of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot rosé are made each year—micro-winery status with winemaker Kenneth Juhasz at the helm.

I tasted the 2010 Chardonnay and 2009 Pinot by way of samples. I hate to say it, but I have been so bored with California Chardonnay that it is NEVER my go to wine, yet the 2010 restored my interest in drinking them (or some anyway). The palate offered bright flavors of both fresh and baked apples and pears, citrus and enough oak for texture and taste without all the “oaky.”

The 2009 Pinot popped both aromatically and on the palate with pretty black cherry and black raspberry fruit, and a deep thread of exotic spices with a silky, almost creamy texture. One of the best Pinots I have tried this year and last.

If you are like my mom–prefer animals to people, or at least people who like animals–and appreciate good wine, definitely join Dunstan’s mailing list or get out there to visit in person. If you wish to follow the plight of America’s wild horses, stay tuned for Price’s upcoming documentary, American Mustang 3D, scheduled for a spring 2013 release.

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