March 2008


It has been in my head for years to write a book called “100 Wines: A Chronicle,” in which I would describe, not the best or greatest wines I have tasted — ha-ha, I tasted these wines and you didn’t! — but the wines I learned the most from. Obviously some of these wines could be simple and direct examples of their grapes or regions, they could be wonderful wines, they could even be bad wines, the point being that I gained knowledge and insight that I didn’t have before.

And then, a few days ago, I thought, sacre bleu, F.K., you have the means to accomplish this feat at your finger-tips, meaning this very blog. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m poring over the notebooks I kept when I was first learning about and then writing about wine — my first wine column appeared in July 1984 — and I’m finding not just a great deal of charming naivete but genuine efforts to learn and understand.

So we’ll begin this chronicle, which I will attempt to contribute to once a week, with the first wine on the first page of my first wine notebook, the Sutter Home Zinfandel 1977 from Amador County. That’s it, huh? you thinking. Remember, up to this point my sutter3_011.jpg principle wine-drinking rituals included Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rossi Paisano, various cheap Beaujolais and Chianti wines (the latter in straw wrappers), Gallo Chablis Blanc and Paul Masson Green Hungarian. Such wines weren’t (too) bad, and they certainly got the job done, but I hungered for more. A friend brought this bottle to our house on Nov. 29, 1981 — this is when my first wife and I were teaching at a junior college in Senatobia, Miss., about 40 miles south of Memphis — thinking that it might elevate the tone of our typical quaff. And it did.

The Sutter Home Zinfandel 1977, Amador County, was the first wine I tried that offered the bite and grip of tannin, the complexity of spicy berry flavors, the feeling of weight and body, the sense of lively robustness and fullness. Vintage 1977 was a drought year in California, producing grapes with intensity and concentration, a quality surely reflected in this rich, dark wine. Not a bad place to start in gaining experience in wine’s diversity and possibility. This was the first wine that I made notes on, the first whose label I saved, though that process of saving labels eventually became tedious. I don’t know how much it cost — it was a gift — but I’ll try to include prices with as many of these wines as I can.

It snowed like mad yesterday in Memphis, an occurrence that’s no novelty for those of you living in northern latitudes, but a rare event in the Mid-South. Already the drifts are melting, so I went out this morning and took some pictures to share. Here’s an Our house in the snow. image of the front of our house. You can see that the snow has weighed down the branches of the maple tree that stands at the beginning of the driveway.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to be slightly snow-bound for a night and have dinner at home — and by the way, I’m no longer reviewing restaurants for my newspaper; see “Goodbye to All That Dining” at the “Whining & Dining” blog — and turn on the lights on the back of the house so we could watch the snow flurry down as we ate.

I whisked up a vinaigrette and made a salad of spinach, radicchio and endive, and LL made risotto, which I will describe. She very slowly cooked two pieces of pancetta to get a little fat, took the pancetta out of the pan and then browned a diced shallot. She added a little olive oil to the pan and cooked arborio rice to that translucent stage and then put in half a cup of white wine and when that was absorbed began adding the chicken broth and stirring the rice. In a few minutes she dropped in some diced green onions, more chicken broth — you know the routine with risotto — and at the end added a handful of grated Parmesan cheese and about a tablespoon of butter.

The whole process took about 25 minutes, and the risotto was fabulous.

To drink with the risotto, I took a bottle that had been in the refrigerator for six months or so. St. Pauls Exclusiv Weissburgunder Plotzner 2005, from Sudtirol Alto Adige, was sent to me with two other bottles of wine from Italy’s northeast region by a 1156951678ex-weissb-ploetz.jpg marketing firm in New York, but for the life of me I can’t remember what that company is, nor can I find any printed matter I may have received with the wines. No importer is listed on the label, whose text is in Italian and German. A Google search on the wine brought up only five hits, all in foreign languages. One of those, however, provided a link to St Pauls informative website. St. Pauls Kellerie/Cantina was founded in the town of Eppan, southwest of Bolzano, in 1907. It’s a cooperative that makes a full range of red, white and sparkling wines from grapes typical of the region.

The wine we tried was terrific and a great match with the risotto. Weissburgunder, while it might look like a synonym for chardonnay (“white Burgundian”), is a name used for pinot blanc (or pinot bianco) in Germany and Austria. Think that a pinot blanc from 2005 would be losing its freshness and luster? Not this one. Sporting a radiant straw-gold color, this wine was incredibly clean and fresh, spicy and minerally, snappy with crisp acid and slightly earthy. Notes of white pepper, peach and pear enlivened lemon and roasted lemon fruit, the whole package vibrant with the delightful tension between bone-dryness and juicy flavors. I rate it Excellent, and I wish I could tell you a price, but I haven’t a notion. The pinot blanc grapes for this wine come from vineyards at 600 meters above sea level, or 1,968 feet. If you visit St Pauls website, you’ll see how steep and picturesque and beautiful the area is.

Of course we ate the pancetta for dessert.

It’s no surprise that the current issue of Wine Spectator (March 31, 2008) is devoted to the spectacular vintage of 2005 in Bordeaux, which the magazine ranks with such legendary years as 2000, 1990, 1989, 1982 and 1961. It’s no surprise that eight of the top chateaux from Bordeaux’s renowned growing regions merited perfect 100-point scores, with many others in the mid and high 90s. Nor is it a surprise that prices for properties with glittering reputations and impeccable appeal are horrendous. Look at the figures that WS quotes: Ausone $2,000 a bottle; L’Evangile, $260 a bottle (the bargain of this group); Haut-Brion rouge, $930; Haut-Brion blanc $510; Lafleur, $2,000; Leoville Las Cases, $315; Margaux, $1,080; Latour, $1,110; Lafite Rothschild $850; Cheval Blanc $945 and so on. Chateau Petrus comes in at $4,975 a bottle, but before you unlimber your credit card to spring for one of those babies, remember that about $4,224.75 pays for water, while $750.25 pays for the stuff that makes wine, you know, wine. I’m just sayin’.

No, the surprise lies here, in this description, by James Suckling, WS’s longtime Bordeaux correspondent, of Chateau Caronne- Ste.-Gemme 2005, a $17 Cru Bourgeois wine from Haut Medoc. This is listed under the “Smart Buys” segment of the magazine’s caroone2.gif “Buying Guide” section. Here’s what Suckling says about the wine, scoring it 91: “Offers raisin and dried fruit, with very ripe fruit aromas and coffee and oak undertones. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins and a long finish. This is pumped up, but I like the flamboyant character.”

“Raisins”! “Pumped up”! “Flamboyant”! What’s scary about these notices concerning Bordeaux 2005 isn’t really the prices — let the plutocrats and robber barons sort that out in their clubhouses and playgrounds — but that the Bordeaux critic for WS tasted a red wine from Bordeaux, described it in a fashion that makes it sound like a hot-climate zinfandel from Lodi, and liked it. Somewhere in there is a hint of the beginning of the end.

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