Friday, February 22, 2019

A Syrah from Dry Creek & a Bowl of Chili

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Posted by Burke Morton On March - 16 - 2010

Ridge Vineyards shipped the 2004 Lytton Estate Syrah as last month's ATP wine. I sat on it for a few weeks before popping one open. The wines from Ridge are the archetypes for food friendly California wine, reminding us that a wine from the Golden State need not be a shameless hussy to be delicious. In fact, non-slutty wine is actually useful for something other than horrendously expensive pancake syrup or an overly sweet and tarry glass of "wine" (which is about the limit of utility for any overtly self-conscious wine). To wit: we were having beef brisket chili with butternut squash (a variation on the one in Bon Appetit a while ago) that I had made last week, before it got warm, intending to have it the following day, but of course it was 65 degrees the next day, so we waited. We had it Saturday night, as the temperature outside dropped. This meeting of flavors in the mouth provided me with an good illustration of the vagaries of wine pairing.

If you stick your nose into the glass, the wine has a heavenly and complex scent dominated by aromas of oranges and blackberries. Ridge's Syrah is comprised of co-fermented lots of Syrah and Viognier, with an addition of Grenache to add some complexity as well as corpulence. As for the chili, its spice is driven by dried ancho chiles with an underlying flavor from puréed oven-roasted tomatoes. The chunks of brisket stand up well with a mighty beefiness. I included accompaniments of diced red onion, cilantro, and chihuahua cheese to finish it at the table.

A taste of the wine after a mouthful of the chili provided a beautiful confluence of flavors--the smokier notions of the wine emerged, the fruitiness lying in the background of the ancho chiles came forward, and the feeling of the two together was very smooth. Yum.

My next bite happened to have no red onion in it, and when I tasted the wine, it had a strong flavor of black pepper, no presence of fruit, with the result of a rather searing quality. Yikes.

I made sure to have red onions in every bite after this.

I've said this a few times in other articles, and many times in other venues: one change can make all the difference in a successful wine pairing. BUT!--if you know your chef (or your own cooking), and you know your wines (i.e., the wines you happen to have on hand), then choosing wine for your meal should be a matter of imagining the flavors in your food (or just taste what you're cooking) and recalling the flavors in your wines and imagine the way they might fit together. This takes some trial and error, but is not an insurmountable problem (this is more about feel than science, so it's accessible to everyone). Besides, as you experiment, you get to drink a boatload of wine (be responsible), so where's the problem?

Popularity: 6% [?]

Wines for Thanksgiving

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 19 - 2009

Wild Turkey (photo: Alan_Vernon.)There is only a week remaining until one of the most important events on the food/wine pairing calendar! I have always looked forward to this time of year, and when I was a wine retailer it was especially invigorating, because sales were excellent and it was fun to get excited (and get customers excited) about wines for the holidays. Time to spread the joy once more!

Dealing with Thanksgiving Food
The flavors of the foods on the Thanksgiving table are so disjointed that one would almost be better off having a companion drink for each dish rather than a single libation. Or just have water (which is asinine unless alcoholism is a factor, so we'll set THAT idea aside). Back to the food and what's often on the table...turkey (relatively bland); stuffing (rich taste made all the more intense if sausage or oysters are added); green vegetables (green beans are the norm at my house, typically hard on wine); sweet potatoes (rich flavor and welcoming of many wines); cranberry sauce (exuberant flavor, not all that wine friendly); and these are just the basics! Obviously there are too many dishes to even consider multiple wine pairings, so let's look at this a bit more nonchalantly: if you want to taste your drink with your feast, you'll need something with bold flavor. If you want to taste your feast with your drink, you'll need something with some grace. My favorite wines with Thanksgiving are not-necessarily full-bodied, but are somewhat warming, even if normally served cold.

An Opening Consideration
Let's go ahead and eliminate big, fat, oaky wines (this means Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in their typical guises). Heavy oak treatment generally inhibits a wine's utility with food. There are obviously some Chardonnays and Cabernets Sauvignon that would work fine with Thanksgiving fare, but these will be out of the ordinary. Wines with other stylistic extremes like those with high alcohol levels are fine (as long as they are not too much about themselves (i.e., like the overripe swamp juice out of Australia)), as are those with low alcohol (so long as they still have vivid character). Wines intended for the Thanksgiving table should also have enough zip to pull through the fats in the food, but not so much that your mouth puckers (nor should they be so devoid of "zip" that they seem flabby).

If any of the following suggestions make you think, "What is that wine?", "How can I find that?", or "Now I'm even more confused!", then you should talk to your local retailer. They can help you find the best option for you.

Here are some of my favorite wines for Thanksgiving:

How can you go wrong with rosé? The answer is, YOU CAN'T!!!! If you have any left over from summer, now is the time to drink it, and you'll be glad you did. I particularly like rosés made of Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon (here's a good place for Cab Sauv!). Rosés from the Sancerre region of France's Loire Valley are exceptionally good, as are the famous rosés of the Rhone Valley's Tavel region. I just tried a rosé from Oregon--the Big Fire Rosé from R. Stuart that would be perfect.

The white wines I am particularly drawn to for Thanksgiving include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Grüner Veltliner, but there are many others that I find just as scintillating. Gewürztraminer is a mighty, intensely aromatic wine and it can be like a warm blanket for your palate. In my retail days, I sold more Gewurz at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year because it is so wonderful with the feast. As for Riesling, if you choose off-dry, I prefer Spätlese or Auslese in ripeness, but there are many Kabinett-level wines that can have just as much depth (this is where you'd ask your retailer). If you want a dry Riesling, a big serious wine from a great growing site works best, and usually these wines get better and better with aeration, so if you don't finish it, drink the rest the next day (there's hardly a more soul-stirring experience than this). Grüner Veltliner is glorious here, and you'll be happy you tried it, because it has the staying power to work with the food (surprisingly seamlessly across the table), and is qualitatively superior to it's peers at a similar price point.

I'll also be drinking some Zinfandel. Skip the White Zinfandel, and go for Red. Some like to point out that this is "America's Grape" and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving? I like to point out that it is genetically identical to European grapes with names like Plavac Mali and Primitivo, so let's drink it for it's merit, shall we? And it has plenty of merit: this year I'll be drinking the Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel, and I drank the 2002 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel last year and loved it. A well-made Red Zin has good balance of acidity and fruit and pulls so much of the food on your plate together that it is in the same league as the whites listed above for harmonious food:wine rapport. Another option--a sensational one at that--is Grenache. I like it in the form that is found in the Rhone Valley regions of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. These velvety wines are so gratifying and emotive that they'll make you think of home, and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving?

For some other suggestions, go to the Wine Pairing Search and look under "Turkey"

Popularity: 10% [?]

Grüner Veltliner

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 6 - 2009

GrüVeThere is something of a natural progression of understanding wine for someone in the wine trade as they mature through many roles, and for those who harbor some humility, they start with the great regions of the wine world and work outward. Those of us who wanted to be the young lions of the wine trade managed to avoid the chestnuts and sought out the obscure wines that no one else knew, and because of this, many people believed that we were more knowledgeable about wine than we actually were, because we must already know the great wines. This group of insufferables, of which I was surely a part, has a tendency to champion obscure grape varieties, and occasionally some of them became rather trendy. One of the most successful of these trends that started eight or nine years ago was around Grüner Veltliner, a wine that should never have been simply trendy—it is one of the great white wines of the world.

This is on my mind because I’ve been hearing that Grüner Veltliner is apparently out of favor. This notion is kind of ridiculous because, beyond the groundswell of retailers, sommeliers, and some adventurous wine lovers, it never really took off they way I had hoped. It has gotten harder to sell it at retail lately, but this is true for most white wines. Smart retailers will continue to stock and sell GrüVe (and yes, it is groovy...) anyway because it offers some of the world’s greatest values, especially the more expensive they get. Any expensive Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay at $80 to $300 seems like highway robbery compared to the outrageous complexities of a $40 GrüVe.

Why GrüVe is Great

Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s most noble contribution to the wine glass outside of crystal companies, and it is a wonderfully flexible wine with food. Any food that you think goes well with Chardonnay usually goes better with an archetypal GrüVe. I have read such assertions before, with some doubt, only to find with experimentation that they are true. It is so versatile at the table that clever (and generally older, I suppose) sommeliers discovered that GrüVe actually goes well with such wine enemies as artichokes, brussel sprouts, and arugula. Chefs love to use these things, and sometimes it seems they’re throwing down the gauntlet to the sommelier: “show me what you’ve got—match something with my spontaneous concoction of shrimp, white truffle, paddlefish caviar, and lentils, served in a leek hollow with a sweet pea, saké, and free range rabbit stock reduction.” Now I love this kind of challenge, and when I’ve been painted into a corner, I can usually use Grüner Veltliner as my trump card.

GrüVe in the Glass

So what is it like? It has fruit characteristics that remind me of rhubarb and kiwi fruit, but these don’t dominate entirely. You may also find a lentil or split pea notion, and a floating, ethereal essence that reminds me of the mimosa that grew behind my childhood home. This wine description sounds unlike most others, and the wine itself is different from most others, but it doesn’t possess anything particularly foreign in flavor that might inhibit accessibility. And GrüVe can be sleek and radiant with rays of sun streaming through your mouth, or it can be vast and burly in the way that I find great Chardonnay to be. Ask your local retailer about what they have and give one a try. I hope it will be groovy for you too.

Food and Wine Harmony

Grüner Veltliner is insanely versatile for food--so much so that I keep on hand and use it often. It works with a wide variety of foods that are excellent with other wines, and it is the one wine that goes with those foods that are notorious antagonists of wine.
Vegetables: Almost every vegetable tastes good with Grüner Veltliner, and the ones that don't generally work with wine at all tend to be delicious with Grüner Veltliner, and can often be revelatory: artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collard greens, green beans, kale, radish, sorrel, spinach, swiss chard, et al.
Land: pork (esp. roast loin), sweetbreads, veal (esp. roasted), Wiener Schnitzel
Sea: lobster (without butter is best, but it doesn't really matter), scallops, shrimp, sushi

Popularity: 14% [?]


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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 2 - 2009

GewurztraminerGewürztraminer is the grape variety that makes one of the wine world's most effulgent and warming wines. When it is well made, it is a serious wine indeed, with an obvious voluptuousness and brazenness. To make this seem less high-brow, I'll call it the Mae West of wine. As you might expect with such a wine, drinkers tend to have polarized reactions to it, though the reaction to the wine doesn't tend to break down along gender lines.

Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTZ-TRA-mee-ner, pronounced this way because it...) is a pink-berried mutation of the Traminer (TRA-mee-ner) grape variety. It earned the gewürz (which literally means "spiced" in German) modifier thanks to its heady perfume, which is so exuberant that it alone provides enough information to identify the wine blind.

The Qualities of the Wine
The basic character of Gewürztraminer is generally broken into two styles: one defined by spiced aromas and opulence, and the other by a floral fragrance and a slightly reserved essence. In both cases, one may detect aromas akin to litchi nuts, rose petals, and/or grapefruit and honey, and when it is bone-dry it can smell strongly of bacon fat. It often tastes of litchi nuts as well, but in the depths of its golden hue many flavors lurk, and since varietal stereotyping makes me uncomfortable anyway, I'll just say that whatever flavors it presents, they are so bold that one can easily grow weary of the flavor profile of a run-of-the-mill Gewurz. However, a Gewürztraminer from a Grand Cru in Alsace can be fabulously complex, continuously evolving, and capable of mid-term aging (20 years or so, but, with a couple of exceptions, I fail to see why one would wait so long). Over the course of a decade in the bottle, the spice quality of a great Gewürztraminer intensifies to such a degree that simply opening a bottle has made my kitchen smell as though I just pulled some gingerbread out of the oven.

If you are a lover of wines of finesse, then perhaps Gewürztraminer is not for you. However, many a finesse-driven Gewurz exists, largely from vintages that are not "hyped" by the growers or wine press--i.e., cooler vintages that didn't necessarily ripen the other varieties grown in the region. These wines are lovely and seductive but more demure and more versatile (with food or without) than bigger, bolder Gewürztraminers.

Speaking of food...

Food and Wine Harmony

Gewurztraminer is generally quite food friendly, so long as the food your are serving with it is also strongly-flavored. This makes it a good companion during the holidays, when many disparate flavors come together at a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. It is also the classic (and best) pairing for French Muenster (not the sandwich cheese from Wisconsin). In fact, if you don't like Gewurz, you may find that the wine makes more sense with Muenster.

It is commonly recommended with Indian and Thai food (especially curries), though I am not generally a proponent of this, as the flavors too often clash. This is not to say that I don't find Gewurz to be felicitous with spicy food, because I do generally like it with Cajun cuisine and a broad range of Chinese foods, including Sichuan and Hunan. It is best to experiment here, as it is unfair to Sichuan and Hunan cuisines to suggest that the wonderfully wide variety of flavors found in the foods of these regions go well--as a class--with Gewürztraminer, which is obviously not the case. It is also a great companion for dishes with a pronounced smokiness, or strong flavors of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, or soy.

Cheese: Époisse, Muenster (the French kind), Roquefort
Meats: Cornish Game Hen, Duck, Pâté (esp. if the Gewurz is off-dry), Pork (especially roast loin and ham), Prosciutto (esp. with melon), Turkey,
Fruits: Coconut, Litchi Nuts, Mango, Papaya
Vegetables: Acorn Squash, Butternut Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Sauerkraut, Grilled Vegetables

Dessert form of Gewürztraminer: this goes well with the same cheeses, but is also sensational with coconut desserts (huzzah for coconut creme pie!), as well as fruit desserts based on tropical fruits like mango and papaya.

You may safely stop here without missing anything. Should you want to learn a bit more, read on...

Hurdles to Making Great Gewürztraminer
It takes very little sunny and warm weather for Gewürztraminer to reach maturity on vine. It is therefore not the easiest variety for growing to make great wine, because it presents the inverse of the challenge associated with more famous wine grapes: it has a high level of natural sugar while its natural acids are rather low. The high grape sugar means that its alcoholic content is commonly over 13-14%, which limits its use with food to heartier cuisines. The low acid means that it can be quite flabby and unappealing unless a grower carefully employs vineyard practices that encourage acid:sugar balance. Good growers are capable of wrenching great wine from this quirky grape even in such blisteringly hot vintages as 2003. The Great Growers of Gewurztraminer (GGG, I guess...) often find enough acidity AND sugar in their grapes that they need to leave an appropriate level of residual sugar in the final wine, though I rarely find such wines taste overtly "sweet."

Gewürztraminer Around the World
There is no question that Alsace is the spiritual home of Gewürztraminer, as the preponderance of Gewurz is planted and made there. It is not a lucrative grape to grow, it is occasionally found from estates and growers who have an affection for it. It is grown to a limited extent in Germany, and does rear its head across eastern Europe, though it is fairly insignificant. It has become a relatively popular variety to grow in New Zealand and in some of the cooler pockets of California. It is in Oregon and Washington that it has made its New World home, with many dedicated growers, especially in Washington, crafting some exciting examples.

Popularity: 7% [?]


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Posted by Burke Morton On September - 16 - 2009

RieslingThe jewel in the crown of any growing region where it may thrive (and like Pinot Noir, that is a narrow range of places), Riesling is the world's finest white wine grape. Okay, in the interest of equanimity, it is arguably the world's finest white wine grape. Certainly it is responsible for the finest white wines in the cool-climate regions of three of the world's great wine-growing countries--Austria, Germany, and France.

Riesling has suffered at the hands of bad wines made in its name, and suffers still from a bottle shape that also reminds consumers ineluctably of that too-sweet wine that they thought they had left behind. Over the years of rehabilitation, Riesling has proven that--while great--it is certainly not for everyone, and it is still fabulously unfashionable in the minds of drinkers who haven't yet been willing to let go of what they "know" and approach Riesling without prejudice.

Misunderstood though it may be, this statement cannot be gainsaid: based on the kaleidoscopic flavors it can present, along with the incredible sense of fathomlessness (if you want this to be a more dispassionate statement, you may substitute "along with numerous indescribable qualities") it can achieve, whether bone dry or super-sweet, a well-made Riesling has no peer. I'll give Chenin Blanc a close second, a grape is possibly even less fashionable than Riesling lately (given the rate with which Chenin is being pulled up in South Africa).

Riesling has a soaring aroma and intense flavors, and usually a lower alcoholic content, especially in Germany, where after fermentation, unfermented grape juice (usually called süssreserve) is added to the wine in order to balance out the high acids that are routine in the cool-climates of the Mosel River and its tributaries, the Ruwer and Saar Rivers. Alcohol levels of 8% are the norm, but in Austria and Alsace, the wines are much more potent at 12%. They are also generally made in a dry style.

I have poured many a BONE DRY Riesling to customers who will insist that it is sweet after they've tasted it. This happens less often if I can pour it in a blind-tasting. That it continues to happen even in a neutral setting is attributable to the simultaneous purity and depth of fruit inherent to Riesling that Chardonnay, for example, doesn't have. Tasters expecting the relatively fruit-poor expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and to a certain extent Pinot Grigio, will no doubt perceive sweetness in a dry Riesling. The irony is that a dry Riesling almost surely possesses less sugar than any of these others.

Food and Wine Harmony

Riesling is among the most useful of wines at the table. Residual sugar is, up to certain limits--a non-issue. Savory food tends to like sugar mixed-in, making Riesling an obvious choice for a mellifluous pairing. It would almost be better to say what it DOES NOT go well with, as that is a much shorter list. Some obvious choices, though, are:
Dry: Asian cuisine, beef (can be a revelation!), cheese, chicken, Choucroute, ham, duck, goose, onion tart, rabbit, salmon, trout
Off Dry: apples, Asian cuisine, chicken, crab, mild curry, roast duck, fish, fruit and fruit sauces, pork, smoked salmon, scallops, roast turkey, Vietnamese food
Sweet: dessert (except chocolate, depending on the wine), foie gras

Unless you want to go deep with Riesling, you may safely stop here without missing a thing.

The natural disposition of Riesling is so fine--provided it is planted in the proper regions--that it can continue to ripen for many weeks after initial ripeness is attained. The natural relationship between the grape's sugars and acids can be maintained while the grape has an opportunity to develop more flavors. This is seen most clearly in Germany, with designations for different ripeness levels that are dictated in several cases by the number of days between harvest (i.e., Kabinett wines may be picked no earlier than two weeks after the first picking of the basic "Qualitätswein")

Riesling from Alsace is not particularly similar to German Riesling, though occasional similarities can be seen with the Trocken (dry) Rieslings from the Pfalz in Germany. German Riesling, especially those from the Mosel area are low in alcohol and can seem to be born out of the ether.

Riesling is a particularly hardy vine, and this is especially helpful in cooler wine regions where other grape varieties might succumb to frost damage. Riesling's springtime bud-break is later than most, and ripening comes earlier than other famous varieties, but achieving full-ripeness in cooler regions can stretch well into Autumn--late October or even late November.

Popularity: 9% [?]

Chesapeake Bay Oysters

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Posted by Burke Morton On September - 11 - 2009

Chesapeake Bay OystersThe Chesapeake Bay Oyster (crassostrea virginica), which is known as the Eastern Oyster when not raised in the Chesapeake, is an endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay, which is at once surprising and expected. It is surprising because the Chesapeake Bay gets its name from the local Native American word Chesepiook, meaning 'Great Shellfish Bay'. The Bay was awash in oysters (and no doubt blue crabs, which have over-fishing issues of their own) when the first Europeans arrived in the Chesapeake in 1607. At roughly one percent of their estimated original population, Chesapeake Bay Oysters are currently residing in the 'where are they now' column. Which brings me to why this was to be expected: Chesapeake Bay Oysters were harvested at a staggering pace from what was once (a century ago) the world's largest oyster 'fishery'. The Chesapeake Bay Oyster was not only popular as food, but valuable as a building material. Once a couple of diseases took hold, the already declining oyster populations dropped precipitiously.

Consuming Chesapeake Bay Oysters

We just visited my parents, whose house is on the estuary of a river that feeds the Chesapeake. They are participating in an oyster reclamation project whereby individuals raise oysters for their own use, but the Bay is beneficiary of the oyster's spawning and water-cleansing power in the meantime. My parents buy three hundred oysters every year and raise them in a cage off their pier. In the third year (they have three populations going at any given time) after getting a new tranche of the endangered bivalve, they have 'market ready' oysters that they can eat.

And we did eat! The oysters were exceptional--I've never had a more seductive oyster experience! We ate them raw, of course, and the flavor...mmmm...they need no 'enhancers'. Perhaps it was the remains of the salt water on the oyster, but the oysters had a fabulously aromatic, heavenly flavor, that seemed to create a halo of the oyster-flavor floating around my head. It was as though the oysters had been growing in a garden of fresh fennel. It is hard to believe that this is the same species as Cape Cod's famous Wellfleet Oyster, which is delicious in its own right...but it is no Chesapeake!

Food & Wine Harmony

It was an enlightening experience, and I cannot tell you how much I wished I could have had a bottle or two of Vermentino! We did well with Picpoul, which was a fine alternative. If the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (old vine Roussanne) wasn't so expensive, I'd jump on a bottle of that to have with these oysters, too.

Popularity: 19% [?]

Video Today

You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 76% [?]


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