I haven’t made cheese toast in a long time. We saw a program by a diet/lifestyle guru on PBS, and I thought, “Whoa, I hafta change the way I eat.” Cheese toast, of course, does not fall into the category of Food That’s Really Good for You. I mean, cheese toast is not brown rice and tofu and seaweed, but it tastes better than brown rice, tofu and seaweed. So yesterday, rewarding myself for work well-done (I know, you’re not supposed to reward yourself with food), I sliced some white bread, which we usually don’t have around the house but is essential for cheese toast, slathered on some Dijon mustard, shaved some parmesan, pecorino and piave cheeses and layered them on the bread and sprinkled on Urfa pepper and Mapuche chili spice. Under the broiler! Zip! Zap! A few minutes later, nice and brown and crusty.
I opened a bottle of the Calcu Red Wine 2008, from Chile’s Colchagua region. This little darlin’ is a blend of 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent carmenère and 15 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. You could say that Calcu is a true Bordeaux-style blend, since the carmenère grape was widely planted in Bordeaux in the 19th Century but was eliminated in the early 20th century because of the unreliability of its yield. For a hundred years or so what were thought to be merlot vines in Chile turned out to be about 90 percent carmenère. DNA-testing pretty much straightened out that problem in the 1990s.
Anyway, Calcu Red Wine 2008 delivers a ravishing snootful of intense and concentrated black currant and black cherry scents deeply imbued with leather and dusty minerals in the limestone and granite range threaded with bitter chocolate and smacked with a fistful of smoky potpourri. That dust-laden mineral element increases in the mouth, providing the backdrop for cozy, chewy tannins and luscious black fruit flavors flecked with lavender and violets rubbed between two hands. Pert and lithe acidity keeps the wine dynamic and quaffable. The whole package asserts more personality than you would think from the price. I enjoyed the wine with my cheese toast, but after sipping a glass I wished that I had saved it for tonight’s pizza. Bringing up the topic: What Wine Shall I Serve with the Pizza in about an Hour? Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
Global Vineyard Importers, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.
I know that readers hate posts that begin like “So-and-so winery turns out minuscule amounts of …” because it means I’m writing about wines they will never see. Nonetheless, in the interest of comprehensive coverage, I must occasionally bring such producers and their wines to your attention. The hills and dales and byways of California, Washington and Oregon (yes, and many other states in this Great and Shining Union) are filled with small family-owned wineries that hardly ever receive national coverage, and when one contacts me and offers to send me samples of their wares, I usually say, “O.K., let’s see what’s going on.”
One example is Misty Oaks Vineyard in Orgeon’s Umpqua Valley. This appellation in the southern part of the state is formed by the conjunction of three mountain ranges and the Umpqua River, all of which come together to form many distinct little valleys and microclimates. Grapes have been grown in Umpqua Valley since the 1880s, when German immigrants who had worked for Beringe, came north from California. Umpqua is home to 21 wineries.
Steve and Christy Simmons, owners of Misty Oaks, came to Umpqua — which means “thunder water” or “across the waters” — from Alaska. They have 15 acres of vines that range from 300 to 1,000 feet elevation. The red grapes are pinot noir, cabernet franc and malbac, the whites cool climate pinot blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. I recently tried the Pinot Blanc 2008 and Cabernet Franc 2008.
The Misty Oaks Constitution Ridge Pinot Blanc 2008, Umqua Valley, is about as pretty as pinot blanc gets. The color is radiant medium straw-gold. Aromas of lemon balm and lemon curd, delicate peach and pear and a hint of petrol entice the nose, while in the mouth, the wine, which ferments and aged half-and-half in stainless steel and wood, is suave and svelte and displays gratifying balance between soft, almost pillowy ripe lushness and clean, spare elegance. Flavors of lemon and pear with a hint of melon and lightly buttered toast turn smokier and spicier in the glass, and the finish brings in a tinge of lime peel and shale-like minerality. The wine could use a slight jolt of acidity to lend more liveliness, but mainly this is a terrifically appealing pinot blanc. Production was 220 cases. 13.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.
The Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umqua Valley, captures the dark, spicy, tarry side of the grape. This is very intense, very concentrated, and you have to give a glass of the stuff a little patience to elicit what turn out to be pretty damned heavenly strains of black currants, blackberries and blueberries set against a beguiling background of rhubarb and black olive, bacon fat, dried thyme and a touch of bell pepper. I mean, this is spot-on for an Anjou cabernet franc. In the mouth, you run into some dusty truculent tannins and brooding granite-laced earthiness that a year or two should bring to bay, though the wine’s slowly unfurling black and blue fruit flavors, etched with filigrees of bitter chocolate and potpourri, hold immense promise through 2015 to ’18. Production was 75 cases. 13.9 percent alcohol. May I just say that this is one of the purest examples of a 100 percent cabernet franc wine I have tasted from the West Coast. Excellent. About $28, and I’m sorry, I wish more were available.
The top shelf of the white wine fridge, that is. I received so many wines after I returned from South America that I needed to clear out space for some of the in-coming stuff, so I lined up the bottles that were lying on the top shelf of the refrigerator devoted to white wine and tasted them all. So that’s the category today: Miscellaneous Whites. These reviews follow the order of tasting. All of these wines were review samples.
A blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the Centine Rosé 2009, Toscana, offers an appealing pale onion skin color. A bouquet of strawberries, raspberries and dried red currants with a hint of dried herbs and limestone leads to a dry, crisp mouthful of wine permeated by delicate touches of strawberry and melon and a sort of woodsy berryish mossy note. The finish brings in more limestone and a trace of clove-like spice. The alcohol content is a highly quaffable 12.5 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Drink up. Very Good. About $11.
Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.
Well, the Frisk Prickly 2009, Alpine Valleys, Victoria, is completely adorable. A blend of 83 percent riesling and 17 percent muscat gordo (an Australian synonym for muscat of Alexandria), the pale straw-gold colored wine is indeed a bit prickly and rather frisky, with its hint of spritz and star-etched crystalline acidity. The wine is moderately sweet going in, but by the time it flows past mid-palate, it’s classically dry and minerally in the crushed limestone/damp shale sense. Green apple, peach and pear, with a tinge of juicy mango; lilacs and camellias; a final delicate wash of river rocks, like a pale watercolor painting of water; these comprise a delightful wine that I found irresistible. Alcohol is 8.7 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $10, an Absolute, Freaking Bargain.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.
The Lorentz family has been making wine in Alsace since 1836; the tradition, the heritage and the experience seem evident. The Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Pinot Gris 2008, Alsace, is a radiant medium gold color; the bouquet delivers a heady amalgam of roasted lemon, lemon balm and almond blossom over subtle tissues of pear, toasted almonds and clean earthiness. Moderately rich notes of lemon, lime skin and pear (with touches of quince and ginger) seethe with teeth-rattling dryness and aching limestone-like minerality; this is, obviously, a very dry, very crisp wine that for all its litheness, leanness and chalky austerity offers wonderful body and presence. I love this detail: according to the winery’s website, its Reserve wines age in wood, stainless steel and glass containers. Drink now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $24.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.
The color of the Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Riesling 2008, Alsace, is pale straw-gold; pungent aromas of pear, lychee and petrol (or rubber eraser) teem in the bouquet, along with hints of jasmine and damp rocks. This is a high-toned, elegant riesling, completely classic in every aspect, from its pinpoint balance between swingeing acidity and supple texture to its tremendous dose of limestone and shale that verges on pure minerality to its gorgeous peach, pear and roasted flavors. Mainly, however, this is about structure; you feel, beneath the fruit, the stones and bones of true authority and austerity, the chime of bright acidity extending into every bright molecule. Drink now through 2015 to ’18. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent, though I liked it a degree or two less than the Rèserve Pinot Gris mentioned above. About $24.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.
Pert and pleasant but at the same time fairly neutral, the Centine Bianco 2009, Toscana, a blend of 40 percent sauvignon blanc, 30 percent pinot grigio and 30 percent chardonnay, does little to bring glory, much less discernible varietal character to any of its constituents. The wine is dry; it is crisp; it is quite minerally, but not in the pristine form of pure scintillating minerality. Even dividing the wine for fermentation and four months’ aging in French barriques doesn’t result in a memorable personality. Let’s face it: Tuscany ain’t prime real estate for sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio or chardonnay. 13 percent alcohol. Good. About $11.
Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.
It’s always interesting to read the technical sheets that accompany wines from Kendall-Jackson to my door because, for one reason, they confirm what a meticulous winemaker Randy Ullom is. The Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Pinot Gris 2009 carries a Monterey County designation, though the wine includes wee portions of grapes from down south in San Luis Obispo County (3%) and farther north in Napa County (2%); don’t forget that there is a Napa County appellation as well as Napa Valley. The wine is fermented primarily in stainless steel tanks; 26 percent is barrel fermented. Pinot gris grapes account for 93 percent of the wine; blended are marsanne (2%), chenin blanc (2%), viognier (1.6%), roussanne (1%) and, rather incredibly, 0.4 percent chardonnay. I wonder how efficaciously the presence of less than half of a percent of chardonnay affects the wine, though my purpose is not to second-guess the winemaker, whose attention to detail I admire. (Actually that’s not true; I second-guess winemakers all the time. No sense being a hypocrite.)
Why, then, don’t I like this wine better? It’s certainly pleasant, clean, crisp and fresh, and it packs a terrific wallop of limestone-and-shale-like minerality, yet it leaves little impression of fruit or even the fruity/floral personality one would expect from the grape. I hate to be a snot, but I have to ask the question: Why was this wine made? Why was so much time and concentration devoted to it to end up just sort of decent and drinkable and forgettable. Well, there’s a place for such wines, but they don’t usually come with this sort of pedigree. Good+. About $15.
The Cadaretta SBS 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, is a blend of 78 percent sauvignon blanc and 22 percent semillon; the grapes derive from hillside vineyards planted in 1992 and 1995, and the wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. The wine offers notes of roasted lemon and yellow plums, with the semillon contributing touches of leafy fig and white waxy flowers, say camellias. There’s nothing grassy about this Bordeaux-style wine, but it does deliver sheaves of dried thyme and tarragon with a broad spectrum of dried savory spices. Elements of limestone seep in around the circumference and within a few minutes the wine is permeated by shale-like minerality, while the finish brings in hints of lime, tangerine and slightly bitter grapefruit. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 500 six-pack cases. Winemaker was Virginie Bourgue, who has since left Cadaretta to focus on her own label. Very Good+. About $23.
At the end of July, I reviewed the Yangarra Estate Vineyard Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, and wondered why the winery, which is owned by Kendall-Jackson, put the words “vinted and bottled by … ” on the back labels. Shortly thereafter I received an email message from winemaker Peter Fraser, who informed me that the estate’s winemaking facility was almost complete and that future vintages will be estate-bottled.
The Yangarra Roussanne 2009, McLaren Vale, sees no new oak, aging, instead, in 35 percent two-year-old French oak barrels and the rest in even older, neutral French oak; the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation. The result is a subtle, supple wine with a lovely sleek texture that deftly balances crisp, apple-fresh acidity with the moderate lushness of ripe pears and roasted lemon. This roussanne is a pale straw-gold color; aromas of green apple, pear and lemon peel are infused with notes of bee’s-wax, jasmine and honeysuckle. The entire effect is of spareness and elegance endowed with confidence and varietal authority, and besides, it’s delicious. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Production was 1.045 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
The Charles Krug Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, was pitched to me as the chardonnay that redraws the map for chardonnay, but it seemed to me to be just another weary Baedeker into the dead-end territory of manipulative excess. It took “three new yeasts” to get the job done here, including “Dave’s super secret yeast” — winemaker is Dave Galzignato — and while I admire the restrained use of oak (seven months in French oak, 35 percent new) and malolactic (only 23 percent), the wine came out smelling and tasting like a brown sugar/toffee/crème brûlée dessert bomb. This is too bad, because it opened nicely, with hints of pear and peach, lemon peel and orange zest, but it descended quickly to strident spice and cloying fruit. Tsk tsk. 14.5 percent alcohol. On the other hand, you will be surprised that I rate this wine Good+ rather than Avoid, because the next chardonnay is even worse, and a guy has to draw the line somewhere. About $20.
Erk! Gack! Bananas Foster goes psycho-killer! I found the Hanna Estate Grown Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, completely beyond the pale. Going through full barrel fermentation, malolactic “fermentation” — to remind you, ML is a natural process but not inevitable that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid — and aged in 75 percent new French oak, this bastion of butterscotch and brown sugar is strenuously toasty, muscularly spicy and aggressively oaky, with an unpleasantly dry, austere finish. At this point, some of my readers are saying gently, “Um, F.K., isn’t this a matter of taste and stylistic preference?” Well, no, it isn’t. Wines such as this one (and the preceding model) are travesties that have nothing to do with the chardonnay grape, just as over-oaked, over-ripe, sweet, cloying, high-alcohol zinfandels have nothing to do with the zinfandel grape. It’s a matter of respect; if you truly respect the chardonnay grape, you don’t make a wine that smells and tastes like a combination of the dessert trolley in a continental restaurant and a lumber yard. A wine writer whom I admire enormously wrote in a recent column that he would never tell a winemaker how to make wine. Oops, hey, I sure would! Look at it this way: I have reviewed books for 25 years — I was book page editor from 1988 to 2003 of the newspaper where I used to work — and I have produced a fair number of negative reviews. A negative review, even only partially, is a way of saying that an author was wrong about how he or she wrote the book, and the same principle holds true with wine and winemakers. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in the winery goes out with every bottle of wine. Where was I? Oh, right. 14.5 percent alcohol. Not for me, O.K.? I mean, I’ll acknowledge that there are wine drinkers (and reviewers at Wine Spectator) who like this “style” of chardonnay, but their palates are beyond my comprehension. About $22.
This is really interesting, a non-vintage dessert wine, and I don’t mean port or some other fortified type. The Höpler Beerenauslese nv, Burgenland, Austria, tasted from a 375-milliliter half-bottle, offers a radiant medium gold color and seductive aromas of roasted apricots and peaches, baked pears, quince jam, honeysuckle and touches of ginger and cloves. In the mouth, this sweetheart is honeyed and viscous; flavors of spiced and brandied peaches with a touch of honeydew melon and mandarin orange are balanced by resounding acidity and a strain of earthy, slightly funky minerality. The wine is definitely sweet on the entry, but halfway across the palate the sweetness melts away, so the finish is resolutely dry and a little stony. The wine is a blend of 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent sämling 88 (a synonym in Burgenland for Germany’s scheurebe grape) and 10 percent grüner veltliner. This doesn’t project the weight or presence or ultimate finesse of a great dessert wine, but it’s very attractive and even irresistible. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About — this is a guess based on imperfect Google results — $24.
USA Wine Imports, New York.
Here’s a revealing comparison: the Höpler Beerenauslese nv mentioned above contains 136 grams per liter of residual sugar (the sugar level after fermentation has run its course); the Höpler Trockenbeerenauslese 2007, Burgenland, contains 214.1 grams per liter of residual sugar, and you feel it in the wine’s massively ripe opulence and succulence, in its sense of softly dissolving grapes and skins, of macerating peaches and apricots liquifying in spiced brandy, of smoky pomanders and crème brûlée and tangerine clafoutis, of roasted honey and orange marmalade. This dazzling panoply of nectar is saved from cloyingness by a tremendous charge of limestone-like minerality and by acidity that feels electrified. “Exquisite” scarcely begins to describe this wine, made completely from sämling 88 grapes. The alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $52 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
USA Wine Imports, New York
The SantoWines Vinsanto 2003, Santorini, Greece — the company also deals in capers, fava beans and tomato products as well as non-dessert wines — is a blend of 70 percent assyrtiko and 30 percent aidani grapes, both widely grown on the island of Santorini; the wine was bottled in 2008 and is throwing a sediment. The color is medium amber with a translucent rim; the bouquet offers aromas of toffee, roasted raisins and toasted almonds, fruit cake and a sort of Platonic cinnamon toast. These beguiling qualities segue into the mouth, where such flavors are a little torn between a very sweet entry and an achingly dry finish. Let’s call it an enjoyably rustic version of vinsanto that just misses essential balance. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $40 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
Stellar Importing Co., Whitestone. N.Y. Image, slightly cropped, from Benito.
By “My First Gnocchi,” I mean my first time to make gnocchi; I mean, I’ve eaten gnocchi many times, mainly in its manifestation as heavy, doughy little indigestible depth-charges. I’ve always avoided making gnocchi because it — really they, right? — felt more trouble than the effort could be worth, and truly the process is a kitchen-wrecker par excellence. Still, I decided to prepare Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter, from the October issue of Bon Appétit, for Halloween night because it seemed like an appropriate autumnal sort of dish. The recipe is from an article about New York Italian restaurant lynch-pin Lidia Bastianich and a typical Friulian meal.
As I said, this was a trek into virgin culinary territory for me, and I was certain as the prepping and mixing and cooking and rolling out and cooking and more cooking went on that I was doing everything wrong. Lo and behold, however, the things actually turned out pretty damned light and airy, just as gnocchi ought to be. LL allowed as how they were as good at the ones she had eaten at Cent’Anni in New York, eons ago. I’ll admit that they were — aw shucks, darnit! — delicious.
I thought that a good way to start — btw, we were watching the excellent Swedish vampire pre-teen love story “Let the Right One In” — would be with a bottle of Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, a seasonal brew, from the well-known independent (and eccentric) brewery in Milton, Delaware, described as “a full-bodied brown ale brewed with real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon & nutmeg.” When I first read these words on Punkin Ale’s label, I shuddered; how, I pondered, could this be anything but too sweet? But no, the spicy “Thanksgiving-like” aspects are very subtle. There’s a sense of sweetness, but it’s encompassed by the ale’s nut-brown richness and balance and the thwacking touch of bitterness on the finish. It was wonderful with the gnocchi. Dogfish Punkin Ale is released early in September and is usually sold out by late November. I paid $3 for a 12-ounce bottle at a retail liquor store that sells “big” beer. I noticed that it’s available by the six-pack at the local Whole Foods. I think I’ll buy one.
From the Punkin Ale, we turned to a completely different but just as satisfying experience. Lydia Bastianich and her son Joe, also a very successful restaurateur (with partner Mario Batali), own a winery in the Friuli region of northeast Italy. The estate turns out well-crafted red and white wines, but recently, as in October, Bastianich released a new line of affordable wines called Adriatico. The wines in the line-up are a Friulano from Italy’s Friuli Venenzia Giulia region, a ribolla gialla from the Brda region of Slovenia, and a malvasia Istriana from Croatia, all of these areas linked geographically by their access to the most inland tip of the Adriatic Sea, as well as by history and culture.
I opened the Bastianich Adriatico Friulana 2009, Colli Orientali del Friuli, and was mighty glad that I did. Yes, it drank very nicely with Lydia Bastianich’s Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter — and only Bastianish wines are recommended with the recipes in the magazine — but even more, it displays gratifying quality and character for the price; in fact, let’s call it compelling. First impression is generally spicy and floral and minerally, while the latter element rapidly rises to the top in a tide of scintillating limestone that bears roasted lemon and lemon balm and a hint of almond and almond blossom. The wine is very fresh, crisp and lively, very dry, yet juicy (stopping short of luscious) and flavorful in a way that’s both fruity and savory; I swear, it felt as if the spareness of cucumber and dried thyme were balanced by ripe pear, lychee and bacon fat, the wine is that macerated and meaty. Yet — another “yet” — there’s nothing obvious, flamboyant or overwhelming here; all is serenity, poise and equilibrium. Drink now through 2011 or into 2012. Alcohol is $13. Excellent. About $15, a Phenomenal Bargain.
Dark Star Imports, New York. A sample for review.