September 2008

… which means “little tomato,” a misnomer, as so many things are, because the tomatillo (pronounced “toe-mah-TEE-yo”) well, tomatillo2.jpg it’s not a little tomato. Physalis philadelphica, its formal name — and the joke current in tomatillo circles ends with the line, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphica.” — is indeed a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, as is the tomato, but of a different genus than the tomato. It is indigenous to Central and South America, we norteamericanos being most familiar with it in the guise of the salsa verde. the ubiquitous green sauce that adds so much freshness and zip to the cuisine in Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants.

Characteristic of the tomatillo is its jade green color, its firmness when ready to be used (not yielding as a tomato), and its distinctive papery husk, which should be crisp, not to say jaunty, when purchased, not limp or crumbly.

We had some leftover grilled chicken, so LL made a tomatillo sauce to go with it. I don’t remember the recipe exactly; we looked it up on Google. Certainly it had minced garlic and onions and jalapeno peppers and so on. My idea was that the spiciness of the sauce would require a pretty substantial red wine. “Nope,” said LL, who has great intuition about these things, “It’ll take a morgan-bottle-syrah.jpg refreshing white.” OK, I love that sort of challenge, so I assembled three wines to try: the Morgan Winery Syrah 2006, Monterey County; the Astica Torrontés 2007, Valle de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina; and the Hess Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Lake County.

The Morgan Syrah 2006 is a terrific example of the grape and combines fruit from the cool Santa Lucia Highlands region with fruit from the warmer Arroyo Seco and San Lucas areas. Boy, this is dark and spicy, tarry and minerally, vibrant and resonant. It features luscious black currant, black raspberry and blueberry flavors permeated by crushed lavender and lilac and bitter chocolate; after a few minutes, it begins to delve into more exotic territory, with hints of plum pudding and fruit cake, baking spice, leather and brambles. It wears its 13 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, with a sense of inevitability yet deftness. This would be great with steak ranchero or fajitas or pork chops, but LL was right; this wine and chicken with tomatillo sauce were as ships that pass in the night. My rating is Excellent. About $24. Production is 1,600 cases.

Torrontés is Argentina’s best white grape, but it’s a grape that needs thoughtful rather than serious treatment; in other words, it astica_torrontes_07.jpg shouldn’t be pumped up to false significance the way that some producers in Italy’s northeastern appellations are jamming up pinot grigio with oak and malolactic. Torrontés should be like a summer breeze, replete with fresh blossoms and herbs. Such a one is the Astica Torrontés 2007, from the area of Mendoza known as Cuyo. Exactly as it should, this wine exhales jasmine and honeysuckle with the addition of a floral astringency, like some shy white mountain flower. Citrus and grapefruit flavors are packed with spice with hints of dried thyme and tarragon, all set into a texture that’s almost talc-like in density. Despite that factor, the wine is notably crisp and vibrant. Very Good and Good Value at about $8. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. As far as the food and wine match is concerned, this was a case of an enjoyable wine that didn’t reveal that spark of affinity for the dish; I think it was too floral, too perfumy.

07_has_sb_bttl.jpg That sought-for match, the spark, came with the Hess Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Lake County. Fermented partly in stainless steel and partly in used oak barrels, the wine delivers all the freshness, crispness and scintillating minerality you could want in a sauvignon blanc with pleasing heft and texture. There’s jasmine in the top note, lime and tangerine just below, followed by lingering notes of slightly astringent grapefruit and snappy gooseberry, while a spicy and faintly earthy aspect burgeons in the glass. Somehow the juicy-fruitness of this wine, combined with its freshness and spareness, zeroed right in on the fresh, juicy and piquant qualities of the tomatillo salsa. Drink now through summer 2009. Very good+ and a Great Bargain at about $11.

Our next opportunity to use tomatillos came with this wonderful recipe from the May 2008 issue of Food & Wine magazine, the “Mexican Chicken Pozole Verde,” essentially a green chicken stew with hominy, tomatillos, poblano and jalapeno chilies and cilantro. When you serve the stew, you pass bowls of shredded iceberg lettuce, sliced radishes, chopped onion, diced avocado, sour cream (I pass on that!) and tortilla chips, and diners scoop those condiments into their portions. This is an immensely flavorful and satisfying dish and represents the kind of cooking that makes you wonder why European –i.e., French — cuisine dominated the world’s kitchens and tables for so long.

The recommended wine with the meal was a pinot gris from Alsace, but not having one of those, I opened a bottle of the Maso masocanali.jpg Canali Pinot Grigio 2007, from Trentino, the northernmost of Italy’s northeastern winemaking provinces. This is a superior pinot grigio. It sees no oak or malolactic process, but does contain 6 percent late harvest, rack-dried grapes that are fermented and aged separately from the other lots and blended at the final stage of winemaking. This factor must add considerably to the wine’s unusual richness and body, its dimension and detail. The bouquet breathes peaches, apricots and lemon balm, dusty almond blossom and a touch of almonds. The wine offers an entrancing texture that envelops flavors of roasted lemon and roasted pear etched with dried herbs and honey, though the wine is completely dry and crisp. Drink now through 2010. Excellent. About $23. Imported by Maso Canali, Healdsburg, Cal., and marketed by E&J Gallo.

Images of tomatillos from “Clay’s Kitchen,”

Don’t pass up this Great Value in a Sonoma County sauvignon blanc. This is the Sonoma Vineyards Sauvignon svsb.jpg Blanc 2007, a wine that practically vibrates in the glass with crystalline purity. The bouquet weaves lemon-lime, anise, freshly-mown grass, dried thyme and a hint of grapefruit. Unlike sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, or the California counterparts that imitate them, this model does not exaggerate the obtrusively snappy grapefruit element. Still, scintillating acid jazzes the wine to ultimate crispness, while limestone elements provide a sort of ballast. The spicy character expands in the mouth, permeating the herb-infused citrus and tangerine flavors. A few minutes in the glass provide the wine with notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, appropriate advent to a texture that’s almost seductively dense. A very attractive sauvignon blanc for drinking into 2009. Sonoma Vineyards is owned by Tom Klein, owner of Rodney Strong Vineyards; winemaker is Greg Morthol. Very good+. About $15.

Just because we’re into September and the official end of summer is two weeks away doesn’t mean that we should stop drinking rosé wines. Let’s say that someone pulls a platter of cold roasted chicken from the fridge for lunch; a clean, crisp, wine_label_r3005_valcombe-rose.JPG chilled rosé is the wine you need. Or say that you’re making sandwiches, chicken salad or ham; again, a rosé is definitely called for. A light Sunday supper, a soup and a salad, perhaps; again, rosé has you covered. Or maybe you’re just sitting out on the porch or the patio or the deck as purple evening shadows mark the end of day: I would estimate that you absolutely need a glass of rosé in your hand, or, even better rosé champagne or sparkling wine, my favorite form of alcoholic beverage. So, here are reviews of two of each.

*A glass of the clean, fresh Chateau de Valcombe Rosé 2007, Costières de Nîmes, glows like a shaft of pale salmon-colored light. Pretty, too, are the scents and flavors of strawberry, peach and melon, highlighted by a bit of tart rhubarb and bolstered by layers of limestone. A pleasing quaff. Very good. About $10 to $12. Costières de Nîmes lies in the southern Rhone Valley, wine_label_r0702_ste-eugenie_corbieres-rose.jpg between the river and the ancient Roman city of Nîmes to the west.

*The Domaine Sainte-Eugenie Rosé 2007, Corbières, blends 75 percent cinsault with 15 percent syrah and 10 percent grenache. giving the lie, at least in this example, to the frequently bruited notion that cinsault is a trash grape that should be eliminated from the South of France, for this is a superior rosé. While the color is a light yet vivid magenta, in the mouth the wine reveals how seriously it takes its resonant minerality and electrifying acid. These qualities are etched, though, with delicacies of melon and dried raspberry with a background of orange rind and dried Provencal herbs; an element of dried spice, like red fruit briefly macerated in cloves and cinnamon, develops in the glass. Very good+ About $10 to $12, Great Value. Corbières is in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in the department of Aude, where France’s Mediterranean coast curves down toward Spain.

These French rosé wines are imported by Robert Kacher, Washington, D.C.

Now the sparkling wine and the champagne.

*Though the winery is in the Napa Valley, the Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2005 carries a North Coast designation because the brut-rose.jpg grapes derive not only from Napa (36%), but from Mendocino (40%), Sonoma (22%) and Marin (2%) counties. The blend of grapes in this sparkling wine is 62 percent pinot noir and 38 percent chardonnay. The color is a rich, burnished salmon-copper; the bouquet bursts from the glass as pure framboise that opens to orange rind, fresh baked biscuits and a touch of candied citron. In the mouth this Brut Rosé is zesty and effervescent, dry and crisp, with flavors of citrusy dried strawberry and lemon curd set into a vibrant yet seductively lush texture. Drink now though 2010 or ’11. Excellent About $50.

*The House of Delamotte, founded in 1760, is a sister producer to the legendary House of Salon, which declares a vintage and makes its expensive blanc de blancs champagne only a few years in a decade. The association means that Delamotte benefits from the grapes that Salon does not use; the other grapes that go into Delamotte’s champagnes are grown in Grand Cru vineyards. The Delamotte Brut Rosé, nonvintage, is a pale onion skin color with a blush of peach for depth; in the glass, a fountain of tiny bubbles spumes upward. The bouquet offers strawberry and fresh bread with heaps of limestone and flint, though this exuberance is tempered by exquisite elegance and flair. In the mouth, a winsome combination of creamy effervescence and spare (yet spicy) flavors of dried red fruit is tempered by traces of an austere chaky, limestone quality and ringing acid. It’s a champagne characterized by refinement and breeding that allows its earthy nature a bit of play; it is, obviously, a champagne for special occasion. 800 cases. Excellent. About $99.

Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.

I speak of the Salmon Cakes with Lemon Yogurt Sauce, the recipe for which is on page 100 of the August issue of Gourmet magazine, a rag I have made fun of several times for blurring the line between editorial and advertising, but we frequently cook from it. Across the spread, on page 101, is a recipe for Celery and Potato Salad, which we also made and served with the salmon cakes, first for ourselves one night and then a week later when friends came for dinner. These are super simple recipes; the hardest step is hard-boiling eggs. When you buy the fillet of salmon — no canned salmon here — be sure to have the butcher take the skin off; it’s really hard to do at home. They’re great dishes, very summery, filled with texture and flavor.

The night LL and I first tried the Salmon Cakes with Lemon Yogurt Sauce and the Celery Potato salad, I opened a bottle of the Morey-Blanc Saint-Aubin Premier Cru 2006. Morey-Blanc is the negociant firm founded in 1992 by Pierre Morey, owned of Domaine Pierre Morey. In Burgundy, in time-honored fashion, negociants buy grapes or wine from growers or owners, often under agreements that go back decades, and make the wine or “finish” the wine themselves; the term on labels is the elegant elevé, “elevated.” This Saint-Aubin Premier Cru 2006 is such a wine. Saint-Aubin is a small vineyard area in aubin.jpg Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune, nestled between and just to the west of the illustrious appellations of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.

My first notes: “wow,” “superb,” “wonderful.” I suppose I could stop there, but I’ll flesh out the details a bit. The wine earns those adjectives through its balance and integration and a sense of presence we can call purposeful. You would never know that it spent 17 months in barrel; oak makes itself known through the wine’s supple texture and through its lively spicy nature. Jasmine lingers in the bouquet, along with roasted lemon and lemon balm. The wine, 100 percent chardonnay, is moderately lush, vibrant with crisp acidity and limestone elements. A few minutes in the glass bring out notes of yellow plum and grapefruit. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Excellent. About $55. 250 six-bottle cases imported, that is, 1,500 bottles to go around, though I suspect that most of this ends up in restaurants with wine lists that lean toward France.

Serving the salmon cakes and celery potato salad to friends a week later, I opened a bottle from the domaine, the Pierre Morey Bourgogne Aligoté 2006. Morey himself is the winemaker and cellarmaster of the domaine; his daughter Anne Morey is co-manager and winemaker for Morey Blanc. The domaine vineyards are farmed on biodynamic principles.

Aligoté, ususally called Burgundy’s other white grape, accounts for only about 1,700 acres in Burgundy proper and that much also to the south in Maconnais and the Côte Chalonnaise. The grape tends to make a tight frisky quaffing wine, though in some hands, Audibert Villaine, for example, in Bouzeron, in the Chalonnaise, and Pierre Morey, it is capable of better things. The grape has aligote.jpg its own appellation and is allowed to be grown in selected spots here and there. Aligoté, for purists (may their names be legion), is the only base for the famous kir, for which it is mixed with cassis, the black currant liqueur.

Pierre Morey’s Bourgogne Aligoté 2006, made from vineyards in Meursault owned by the Morey family since 1930 (these vines planted in 1957), is fresh, clean and crisp, spare, lithe and sinewy. It offers lemon and lime scents permeated by honeysuckle with touches of face powder and April in Paris perfume (the equivalent of Proust’s cookie pour moi); while the wine is notably resonant, even taut with acid, the texture is seductive and silky. Lemon and orange rind flavors, fringed with spice, expand with traces of chalk and earth on the finish. Drink now through 2010. Excellent. About $20. This wine is such an expressive rendition of the grape and it’s priced so fairly that I would make it a Wine of the Week except that only 225 cases were imported. Yep, that’s 2,700 bottles, so mark this Worth a Search.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.

Here’s a big-hearted, two-fisted zinfandel cut from the old cloth. The Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Zinfandel 2006, Sonoma County, draws grapes from an estate vineyard in the Russian River Valley whose vines go back to 2004, along with grapes from vineyards in the Alexander Valley. The oak treatment is judicious, 10 months in barrels, 71 percent American, 29 percent rodneystrongzin.jpg French. The wine contains one percent petite sirah. At 14.8 percent, the alcohol seems almost tame compared to zinfandels that come in at 16 percent or more.

By “cut from the old cloth,” I mean that this is an old-fashioned rollicking, heady zinfandel with loads of personality. The wine is drenched in black currant, blueberry and boysenberry flavors that start out tasting spiced and macerated — the wine is packed with spice — and then take on roasted and fleshy qualities. And then take on permeations of fruit cake, with its sense of soaked-in richness, dried citrus fruit and baking spices. The wine is dense and chewy, generously proportioned and a little single-minded. No, friends, this wine is not about elegance and finesse and refinement; it’s about boldness and exuberance, and it requires bold and exuberant food to match it, say barbecue brisket or smoked ribs or grilled pork chops with a Southwestern-style rub, though we drank this with pizza topped with applewood-smoked bacon, basil, radicchio, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and red onions. Very good+. About $20.

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