Saturday, April 29, 2017

Why Should We Avoid Red Wine with Fish?

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Posted by Burke Morton On October - 26 - 2009

Red & Fish (photo: stevegarfield)Long has there been a stigma against drinking red wine with fish. I doubt this is rooted in a James Bond sort of snobby disdain of an incorrect wine choice, though I have heard many suggest this. It is simply a practical consideration for enjoyment (it's just the cultural elite who regard it as outré). The fact is that a red wine can often make even the freshest fish smell and taste exceedingly "fishy"--a magnification of that decaying smell that should warn you off buying a fish from the market. Most every time I have had this combination, I felt not only did the fish taste awful (if I could even taste it at all), the wine suddenly had a metallic taste: sapped of fruit almost entirely. I would gather that this metallic flavor is a magnification of a wine's iron content. I usually remain sensitive to iron in wine, especially reds, for long periods after such an encounter, as iron (or whatever it is that tastes like it) seems to attach itself to the tannins present in most reds.

This iron-ic transformation happens most obviously with Pinot Noir and Smoked Salmon--this is a dreadful combination, which prompts the most tooth-shocking metallic flavor you would never want to experience. Imagine someone filing madly on your teeth, getting dangerously close to the root, and then deciding to scratch his fingers along a blackboard just for kicks. It's that unpleasant. Actually, pairing Pinot Noir and smoked fish of any kind is usually bad, though lean fish (a speedy swimmer like bluefish) seems to be better.

This same disastrous vinous metamorphosis happens with non-smoked white-fleshed fish and robust red wines, though lighter reds like Pinot Noir can often be just fine. Particularly egregious in this metallic offense are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (which is usually even worse), Syrah, and Nebbiolo (which can be so bad that one needs no further evidence as to why you might want to avoid the red wine and fish combination). The obvious conclusion is that this means that there is some type of fat that iron latches on to, but I know next to nothing about chemistry, so someone else will have to illuminate this aspect of the issue.

I would imagine that this effect is not so bad in wines with very little iron content, a measure that would vary based on the amount of iron present in the soil on which the vines are planted. However, I have never done (and will probably never do) a study to find out. Sounds like a good idea for a science project--too bad science projects are the province of high school students who are underage.

If you are intent on having red wine with fish (which is just fine with me), go with a wine possessing low tannin: Beaujolais would be ideal. If you are having a more robust red-fleshed fish, by all means, have a red wine. Not that red would naturally be my first choice (it depends upon the situation), but there are many fine combinations here. Tuna, salmon, and brook trout can be quite delicious with Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, and a few less common grape varieties, including one from the heel of the Italian boot, Negroamaro (though it can be quite alcoholic, which can hamper its usefulness), and the famous (if widely considered ignoble) German red Dornfelder (which can actually be a wonderful wine for this purpose, if you can find a good one).

There are exceptions to all of this of course, and I would urge you to experiment with red wine and fish if it intrigues you. I am still intrigued by this to the extent that it happens to come up, but I no longer seek this one out.

If you are seeking good pairings for your fish, there are many, many options listed in the Wine Pairing Search, both white and red wine. As an alternative, you could go do some experimenting as a part of the Wine Pairing Course, and report back your experiences.

Popularity: 15% [?]

Appellations and Their Shortcomings

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Posted by Burke Morton On October - 15 - 2009

Chianti (photo: leeloosu)I was walking my dog this morning and we walked by a recycling bin containing an empty cardboard box that was once a case of Chianti. I won't name the Chianti, because I can't say anything nice about it, but it did fire my brain on this topic--that this wine (and others like it) bothers me. It is here that people are immediately suspicious of where I'm going with this, and some have even said, "Oh, so it's not good enough?" or "What, you can't imagine someone is actually drinking that?" Um...in truth, there are better choices, but that really doesn't bother me at all. Indeed, it is a necessity, because--while I am annoyed that the wine is from a HUGE production cooperative that masquerades as an estate--it is cheap, potable wine that people buy by the case, and this is one of the principal engines of the wine industry. What bothers me actually has more to do with politics.

The Chianti region is a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), which is an Italian designation for wine of superiority, modeled after the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system in France. The rank of Italian delimitations goes, from the humble to elite, DO to DOC to DOCG. The Chianti zone is supposedly in the top class, yet its wines can be so uninteresting! Thanks to political maneuvering, it is the same exalted level as is assigned to the Chianti subregions of Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina, both of which produce decidedly more captivating and significant wines. In fact, some of Italy's finest wines come from Chianti Classico.

I'm not suggesting that every wine be "significant", because that would be BORING. DOCGs are supposed to stand for a certain level of quality. At least, since the wines have to pass a panel tasting to be approved for the classification, one might reasonably conclude that this is a quality assurance step. There is no evidence that it will assure my enjoyment of a Chianti. At a minimum, it assures that the DOCG designation means LESS than it should. I'd reclassify Chianti as a Denominazione di Origine, because DO is seldom used and is about as noble as the average Chianti. There are certainly some Chianti producers whose wines are superb, but as a class, they are not reliable as anything other than a good steady drink. There's something to be said for that, but that isn't supposed to be the definition of a DOCG.

It's not like the Italians are the only ones guilty of this. In France, all wines submitted for Appellation approval have to be anointed by a tasting panel...except in Burgundy, which is the area that MOST NEEDS TO MEET A STANDARD!!!!! So you could pay $200 for a Grand Cru Burgundy and get a pretty bad wine, because the Burgundy wine establishment pulled the ultimate snow job to get out of having to submit every wine to meet approval. Burgundy is so fragmented, they argued, and estates often have so many wines, that it would be confusing, and someone might be able to slip a second bottle of good wine in the place of a substandard one so both would pass consideration. They also questioned whether there were enough qualified tasters to adjudicate the proceedings, and of course, tasting young wines is such a difficult thing to do. So to keep the governing body (the INAO) that determines these things from being overwhelmed, the growers suggested that they submit only one wine as a representation of an estate's portfolio...and that is how it is. That's BS! If ever there was an entity that was efficient with bureaucracy, it would be the French Government, and here is one sure way to screw the consumer without having to be responsible! "It's not my fault--the INAO gave the wine its approval...."

Based on this, you might wonder "why bother with Burgundy?" Well, once you've tasted a great one, you'd understand without having to be told. Besides, I can report that things are improving in Burgundy, as a new generation of growers take over and strive for quality in a way that their forebears thought economically unfeasible.

For the most part, the systems of regional quality control in France and Italy work well, but political wranglings have weakened them, but the soiled spots are routinely exposed by writers who specialize in the regions, and of course, none of these things can be perfect. In these days of retooling the Health Care system, these things seem rather small, but they are also perhaps an object lesson.

Popularity: 11% [?]

Pinot Noir

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Posted by Burke Morton On August - 10 - 2009

Pinot NoirThis great grape of Burgundy has been a wine-world nexus of legend and disappointment for at least two millennia. It can achieve such glorious heights of seductiveness and heart-rending power that it is the one grape variety that ambitious winemakers worldwide want to wrestle with at some point in their career path.

A capricious (and therefore expensive) vine to grow, Pinot Noir only thrives in a narrow range of climates, and while it will yield fruit in the hot regions that the much more flexible Cabernet Sauvignon is routinely grown in, the main charms of Pinot Noir--a sensuous essence and graceful subtlety, along with the more cerebral transparency of provenance--are lost to what would be better-off sold in a jar as imitation cherry jam.

It is exactly these charms that have fascinated and excited drinkers of Pinot Noir since the Romans occupied France. In its youth, it has flavors and aromas akin to cherries, violets, raspberries, and rosehips. As it matures, it sheds these nubile elements and acquires qualities that remind me of some experiences I've had while camping--woodsy, game-y notions that are warming and unforgettable.

Burgundy is still the standard-bearer for this variety, producing Pinot Noirs of a sensational assortment of characteristics within a 60km span of the roughly 80km length of the Côte d'Or and Côte Chalonnaise combined. Depending upon the growing area, it can be extraordinarily perfumed and shimmering, or zesty and bold, or intensely powerful and rich, all without losing the essential ethos of Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is also grown with great success in Oregon, California, Italy, Austria, New Zealand (especially Central Otago, but really almost anywhere is good), and Australia (esp. Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River on the southwestern coast). There are many excellent examples from other regions of France (Alsace, Champagne, and the Loire Valley), and from less commonly considered growing areas like Germany, Austria, and Italy.

In my experience, Pinot Noir is not for everyone, insofar as a drinking it without food is concerned. It often has a fragile, nervy, and mercurial character, even when the wine is quite robust. Merlot is much more of an everyman's wine, and is (or was, but is becoming so again) appropriately popular. I have found that those who dislike Pinot Noir in general, actually enjoy it with an appropriate food pairing. Because of the wide variety of flavors and styles in which Pinot Noir can be cast, it is good to know the wines you are choosing from before going in, or consult with your sommelier or wine retailer.

Tasting Pinot Noir
One should use a bulbous glass when tasting Pinot Noir. The commonly accepted design for a Pinot Noir Glass looks like a brandy snifter on a tall stem. This glass is designed to give the aromatics of Pinot Noir room to expand before directing them to the taster's nose through a small opening.

When tasting many other wines alongside Pinot Noir, one should taste Pinot Noir first. This is true for white wine as well. White wine can (and Riesling will) cause the taster's perception of Pinot Noir to be distorted and unpleasant.

Pinot Noir with Food
There is hardly anything that really doesn't work with Pinot Noir, though sweet and/or spicy foods are typically not a good combination, but I've had many exceptions. Also, it isn't terribly good as a companion for most smoked fish, but see below for an exception.
Land: roast beef, steak tartare, charcuterie, lamb loin, pork loin, rabbit, veal, liver, duck, game birds, quail, squab
Cheese: Époisse, Gruyère, aged goat, Brie
Fish: salmon, trout, smoked bluefish, scallops, tuna, shark
Fruit & Vegetables: mushrooms, cherries, beets, fennel, eggplant, root vegetables

Unless you're looking for deeper knowledge about Pinot Noir, you may stop here without missing a thing....

More on Pinot Noir (for those with the desire to fill up on relevant info)

The Pinot family is a convoluted one. Pinot Noir is one of the more ancient vine varieties, and is, as a result, genetically unstable. This led to the mutation of the vine into Pinot Gris (and Pinot Gris then mutated into Pinot Blanc, so the mutation hardly helped stabilize the vine). We also have other mutations of Pinot Noir, the most important of which is Meunier (aka Pinot Meunier). Also found in the Pinot family are the many progeny of Pinot and Gouais Blanc: St. Laurent, Auxerrois (also known as Pinot Auxerrois), and further on down the family tree, Chardonnay.

Growing location imparts an ineffable set of qualities to Pinot Noir that is impossible to duplicate except from the same set of vines. Apart from Riesling, it is the grape that most eloquently expresses terroir, or the combination of soil, micro-climate, and various uncontrollable human macro influences, of a given growing site. One can perhaps correlate the ethereal Pinots from Russian River Valley to the ethereal Volnays grown in the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy. However, from vineyard to vineyard in RRV the wines have an individualistic character, and this same effect is even more dramatically exemplified in Volnay, due to strictly defined sub-regions based on, usually, soil type. The differences between these wines side-by-side and half-way across the world can be even further radicalized by the winemaker's actions in the winery.

Pinot Noir is not just difficult to work with on the vine, but also in the winery. It never endures recipe winemaking (though some try to subject it to this), because questions continuously arise over the fragile juice that is turning into wine. A notoriously thin skin leaves yearly concerns about the wine's potential tannin content as an oenologist tries to extract what little color is willing to leech out of the grape skins without also getting too much tannin. I.e., one can easily have overly tannic wines trying to achieve the dark purplish-red typical of Pinot Noir. This is bad because grape skin tannins are much less appealing ("mouth-puckering" comes to mind) than tannins acquired from an oak barrel (which is more-or-less pleasantly tongue-gripping). Conversely, the skins can often contain very little tannin, so no amount of additional soaking will yield tannin in the appropriate character and in enough quantity to ensure longevity. To solve this winemakers may leave the stems in the fermentation vat (if they don't already use a whole-cluster method) to impart necessary tannic structure. This has its own problems, as the stems may not be fully "ripe" themselves, so the tannin character they can impart is potentially quite harsh. Another concern revolves around pigéage (which is the punching down of the cap that forms during fermentation) or pump-overs (which uses a vacuum pump to keep the cap wet). Generally the gentler the better (pigéage is gentler), but I have heard some winemakers argue for pump-overs in certain vintages.

France, with the world's tenderloin of Pinot Noir production in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, continues to produce the most soul-stirring examples of this hallowed variety. In addition to the Côte d'Or and Côte Châlonnaise mentioned above, Pinot Noir is planted to a limited extent also in the Côte d'Auxerre in northern Burgundy, and the Mâconnais at the southern end. Champagne holds the single largest area of Pinot Noir in France. Aside from using it for sparkling wine, several estates make still red wine, often blended with Meunier. The reds and rosés of Sancerre in the Loire Valley are made from Pinot Noir, and it is also the only legally allowed red wine grape in Alsace.

Pinot Noir is Germany's most noble red variety, and it increasingly successful in Pfalz, Rheingau, and Baden. Germans refer to it as Spätburgunder or Blauburgunder.

In Austria, it is an important if minor variety in the Burgenland (that would be the German for Burgundy...), the country's principal source of red wine, where it is grown alongside St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch, and Zweigelt. Austrians often refer to Pinot Noir as Blauer Spätburgunder.

Pinot Noir is a commonly found grape in Switzerland where it is often blended with Gamay to make Switzerland's most famous (which isn't saying very much--market penetration of Swiss wine is not good) wine, Dôle.

California has perhaps the most reliable climate for growing grapes in the world, and Pinot Noir is grown widely there, but is most successful (to my mind), in no particular order, in the Central Coast, Sonoma County, Mendocino, and Carneros.

Oregon is more climatically aligned to Burgundy, and the wine profiles are similarly diverse. A source of some sensational Pinots, most of the wines in Oregon are made in the Willamette Valley. There is an excellent case to be made for the Pinots of the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, which are typically more dense and velvety.

New Zealand is now well established as a source of fine Pinot Noir. Central Otago has been showing great promise, but Marlborough and Christchurch (esp. Waipara) produce excellent wines as well. The wines tend to start at an expensive tier (around $30), but top out far below the most expensive wines from Burgundy, California, and Oregon...for now.

Known as Pinot Nero in Italy, it is widely planted in Lombardy, in the northern reaches of Italy, where in addition to making red wine, it is used in Franciacorta for that region's sparkling wines.

Spain has very little Pinot Noir planted, and given the typically high average temperature of the growing season, this will likely stay that way. There are plantings across eastern Europe, but nothing has as yet taken hold as a new hot-spot for Pinot Noir.

Popularity: 8% [?]

Foxen Pinot Noir 2007 Santa Maria Valley

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Posted by Burke Morton On August - 6 - 2009

Foxen Pinot NoirFoxen Pinot Noir has always been sensational...and almost always impossible to get, until lately. The 2007 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir was a lovely example of this--I could smell it from a foot above the glass. Its fruit profile was so sweet that it actually went well with VANILLA ICE CREAM, which not many dry wines will do.

It was actually kind of unrelenting, however. I.e., it is a full-throated wine and it was just as intense by the time I finished it as when I opened it. Sounds perfect, but some might find this a flaw. For me this was just fine, but the wine was not continuously intriguing. I only felt that I needed more than just me on the drinking docket (my wife had some, but not much). I drank it over two days, so that helped.

I never stopped enjoying the heck out of it. Thanks to Foxen for making such a grand expression of Pinot Noir. It's somewhere in the ballpark of $30, so well worth it.

Food & Wine Harmony: The fruit profile of this wine is so extraordinary that you could truly pour some on your ice cream and it would be excellent--weird, yes, but excellent. I also found it good with a parmesan-herb frittata, and a Thai-spiced grilled chicken, but I suspect that I would go with a huge variety of foods from savory to sweet.

For those who care:
Foxen 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 18.6/20
Soaring scent of plums and black cherries--ridiculously sweet aroma--with violets in the background. Santa Maria Valley wines so often have the aura that this wine has as well. Seems angelic, but also rather obvious about its piety.... The flavors back this up, and are so sweet (within the confines of DRY wine, for those of you worried about that) that it is hard to believe.

Popularity: 9% [?]

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

Popularity: 64% [?]

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