Best Wines

Last Friday morning, our small group rode in the back of an open truck, driven by winery co-manager Francisco “Chico” Ferreira, up and up and up, through switch-back turns so extreme that the truck had to pass the turn, back around to the edge of the terrifying overhand — this is scary! — and then steer back into the angle, to the top of the vineyards of Quinta do Vallado, where the tinta roriz vines (the Spanish tempranillo) are 90 years old; a few vines of white grapes are scattered through the rows. At this altitude, about 400 meters (1,312 feet), the roots of the vines burrow 25 to 30 feet deep seeking water. The stalks are twisted and gnarly, like caricatures of grapevines, and hardly seem as if they could support life, not to mention grapes of extremely high intensity and character. The view from this height is spectacular, as I mention with each post about the Douro region, but the sublime landscape is inescapable.

After a bone-crunching ride back to the winery — Quinta do Vallado, by the way, was the home of Dona Antonia Ferreira (1811-1896), the godmother of the Douro — we assemble with Chico in the tasting room, attended by a young woman wearing a white laboratory coat, to try Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2000, 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07. I’ll get to that portion of the tasting later in this post, but first I want to describe the event that will compel me to add the term Wine Consultant to my business card.

Chico set up a blind tasting of five cask samples of wine from the 2008 vintage: 1. Touriga nacional from nine-year-old vineyards; 2. touriga nacional from 20 year-old vineyards; 3. sousão grapes; 4. a blend of red wines from old vineyards; 5. another blend of red wines from a different old vineyard. Chico gave us three hints: The touriga nacional should be elegant with touches of violets; the sousão should have an intense color and fresh acidity; the old vine samples should show lots of complexity and structure.

So, we spent several minutes swirling, sniffing and sipping the wines, taking notes and so forth, and when Chico revealed which wines were which, I had only gotten two right. Hey, give me some cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir! I’ll show you how to taste blind!

Then, Chico said that we would assemble a theoretical blend for the Reserva 2008 from four of the wines left in our glasses, omitting the young touriga nacional, and he would judge which was best. Ah, now the competition heated up. I mean, here were six experienced wine tasters and writers vying to assemble a potentially great wine, each thinking that he or she, of course, knew more than any of the others about the balance of elegance and power. Like scientists, we used the graduated beaker to measure the proportions of the four samples, trying for the ideal of a young reserve wine.

My formula turned out to be 50 percent of the touriga nacional from 20-year-old vines; 10 percent sousão; and 20 percent each of the wines from the two old vineyards.

Chico went around the table, peering intently at each glass of the finished blend, swirling, sniffing, sipping. He performed this process twice, and then he stopped by my chair and again picked up the glass holding my creation. “This it is,” he said. “Fredric got the right aromas, the right intensity and flavor. He wins the prize.” And there actually was a prize, a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 in a wooden box, which I brought back to the U.S., through three flights, wrapped in two plastic bags and then rolled up in two shirts, in my checked luggage. Sadly, I abandoned the wooden box — sorry, Chico! — as too big, heavy and awkward.

I wasn’t the only winner. Rebecca Leung, a writer from Hong Kong (Wine Is Beautiful, but she writes in Chinese), also won a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 for guessing — or, I should say, professionally ascertaining with cool acumen — the correct components in the first blind tasting of cask samples.

Of the Quinto do Vallado Reserva wines that we tasted from 2000 and 2003 through 2007, Chico said, “These are made in my style of wine, tannic, with lots of structure.” He wasn’t wrong, yet the wines exhibited, in addition to bastions and buttresses of tannin and oak and minerals, lovely touches of fruit and flowers and herbs that wheedle their way into your heart. Well, some of them, anyway. The wines usually age 18 months in 70 percent new French barriques, 30 percent one-year old barrels. Occasionally one wants to ask: Is it only small French oak barrels that can make great wine? Are there not alternatives? Think of the glorious authenticity of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino before the winemakers turned slavishly to the barrique. Oh, well, never mind.

Here are brief notes:

>2000. Dried spice and flowers, v. dark purple, deep solid structure, muscular, a little angular; intense, concentrated, shimmering black fruit flavors. Needs a steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+

>2003. Immensely aromatic, cedar, tobacco, black olive, granite and slate; blazing acidity for vibrancy and resonance; picks up fleshier fruit and exotic spice; dusty tannins lead to an austere finish. bring out another steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.

The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.

Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.

Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.

High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”

Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.

A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.

A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.

For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.

In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:

>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.

Once a year, when the growing season is right, I get a yen for lady peas, the most delicate of the pantheon of Southern peas that includes blackeyed peas, purple hull peas, crowder peas and so on. Lady peas are the smallest, the most subtle, the most, well, ladylike. We bought a pound at the Farmers Market downtown a few weeks ago and I cooked up a mess. (That means a bunch.)

I treat the peas as a soup. I diced pretty finely a small onion, a carrot and a celery rib, sauteed them a bit in olive oil, and then added the rinsed lady peas and a couple of pieces of bacon, also chopped. with a sprinkling of dried thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and a few cups of water. Being small, lady peas don’t take long to cook, maybe an hour or so at a simmer. The broth made from these ingredients was wonderful, filled with flavor yet not powerful. As you can see from the photograph, I served these with a garnish of julienne basil.

What else? The tomatoes have been good this year, so a salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes, red and yellow and pale green.

And while we don’t often have dessert Chez FK/LL, I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude a Southern meal with a peach cobbler with clabber biscuits for the crust. Yeah, this was awesomely delicious.

With the lady pea soup, we drank the Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Made all in stainless steel and with seven percent semillon grapes, this is a lovely wine, so deft and well-balanced, filled with pleasure and allure. Mildly herbal and grassy, this sauvignon blanc offers sunny and leafy fig and lemon scents and flavors with hints of apples and green grapes and melon. Lime peel comes in after a few minutes, with touches of dried thyme and tarragon, followed by a wash of limestone and shale. Clean, bright acidity energizes the whole package, which concludes with a tang of grapefruit and a hint of its bracing bitterness. An incredibly fresh and appealing wine. Excellent. About $20, Great Value.

Yes, Readers, I am actually in the Douro Valley in Portugal and in about an hour we’ll be heading out to Vale D. Maria for a tasting and lunch and then on to Quinta do Vallado for another tasting and dinner. I had meant to do this lady pea post last week, but I had a few minutes to do some catch-up writing and emailing. Have a great day, and I’ll try to post again tonight or tomorrow morning.

Well, My Readers, it’s time to wrap things up for the trip to Germany. This is the 12th post, and I’ve covered about every topic, issue and idea that came out of that too-brief sojourn. Today, I thought it would be fun to turn to some of the best meals, or at least dishes, that I ate in Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz and then finish with a list of the best wines I encountered during those four days. As you will see, not once were we presented with sauerbraten or sausages.
Tuesday, July 7. I didn’t take my camera to the introductory dinner on our first night, so I can’t provide a visual record of one of the best fish courses I have ever eaten. This was at the restaurant l’herbe de Provence, which occupies the whole first floor of the sleekly modern Zwo Hotel and Restaurant in Oppenheim. The dish was a filet of rotbarben (rouget barbet or red mullet) on braised apricots with fried chanterelle mushrooms. That was it. Utter simplicity and completely fabulous in its balance of sweet and savory and earthy sensations and of complimentary textures. Also simple yet almost heartbreakingly lovely was the pinot blanc that accompanied the dish, the Guntersblumer Weisburgunder 2007 from Geheimrat Schnell.

Wednesday, July 8. After a day visiting estates and tasting wines in Rheingau, we touched down in the village of Hattenheim, in front of the venerable Zum Krug Weinhaus und Hotel, where the chef Josef Laufer presides over the kitchen. His father, also Josef Laufer, is founder of the establishment, though the building dates back to the early 18th Century. Laufer prepared an inventive, intriguing meal for our group, not every element of which worked. For example, the second course, for which I will not transcribe the German name, consisted of a cup of foamed soup made from organic goat cheese adorned with basil pesto and a portion of air-dried country ham, each perched on a rectangular plate. The soup was good; the ham was good; they did not compose a relationship together.

On the other hand, Laufer provided what was probably the best meat course of the trip. This was a shoulder of free-range pig in elderflower syrup (Holunderblütenöl) — I’m not certain of the cooking method — on a bed of kohlrabi with “little mushrooms” (Pfifferlingen) and new potatoes, a dish that went far beyond the concept of common “meat and potatoes.” And while I did not get used to drinking riesling with meat courses — I think people got tired of me saying, “Man, I sure wish I had a Ridge Three Valleys Zinfandel with this!” — the fact is that the brilliant Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Erste Gewächs (“First Growth”) Riesling 2002 eased my pain.

Thursday, July 9. Evening brought us to Weingut Gysler, a producer that has been operating in the Rheingau village of Alzey since 1450 and is now run by Alexander Gysler on biodynamic principles; the wines, which display gratifying delicacy and authority, are certified by Demeter and BIO. Instead of dining at a restaurant, dinner was catered at Gysler by celebrated young chef Peter Scharff, who left a Michelin one-star restaurant to start a group called Kulinarische Kompetenz. I found his resemblance to Emperor Franz-Josef — or was it Ludwig, Mad King of Bavaria? — striking. Scharff and his staff grow 200 to 250 herbs, many of which found their way into these courses. We didn’t have a printed menu, so my interpretation of some of these dishes may be sketchy.

I thought that the first course involved salmon “three ways,” but I could find only two, a salmon mousse, cunningly surrounded by paper-thin half-moons of radish, and deeply flavorful smoked salmon, accompanied by a tangle of crisp, fresh greens. It was a complicated dish, but delicious. Next came braised beef shoulder and smoked and braised beef cheeks on roasted tomatoes with root vegetables, of which I was not so fond, because it seemed neither to tax the chef’s ingenuity nor to rise too high about the “meat and potatoes” level,” which is not to save that I didn’t clean my plate.

Dessert, though, was this beautiful panna cotta with fresh berries and herbs. Each plate also held, on the rim, a little totem of dark chocolate. This was, I think, the hit of the evening, along with Gysler’s Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008 served with it. One of our party who had a car promptly bought a case.
Friday, July 10. The plains and gently rolling hills of Pfalz held our attention today. We had lunch at Netts Restaurant und Weinbar, in Gimmeldingen, along with a tasting of wines from Weingut A. Christmann. The restaurant, designed in a spare contemporary manner with white walls and plain wood accents — and with a stunning view from the dining room of a great shallow valley stretching for miles — wasn’t scheduled to open for another week, so this was a special occasion. You could tell that the establishment wasn’t finished by such details as the mirror in the men’s restroom held in place by a two-by-four; that’s usually a giveaway. Though the food was simple, it was impeccably prepared and presented, adding up to what was probably our most coherent meal from beginning to end. It didn’t hurt that the Christmann rieslings were superb, though I thought that two pinot noirs were too spicy and worked over by oak.

First, a simple piece of rabbit loin rhubarb sauce, with two wines, Christmann’s Ruppertsberger Linsenbusch Riesling 2008 and the Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, which is to say, an excellent wine followed by an amazing wine.

Then, a lovely terrine of peas and carrots with an arugula salad and hazetnut pesto, with the excellent Reiterpfad Grosses Gewächs (“Grand Cru”) Riesling 2004 followed by the exceptional Idig Grosses Gewächs Rieling 2003.

If the meal at Netts had a weak spot, it was that the next course seemed a tad obvious, a little less subtle that the others. This was roulades of trout stuffed with herbs served over onion marmalade with gnocchi on the side. These wines, too, the pinots I mentioned before, were the weakest in the roster.

Finally, a sort of rhubarb crumble served in a small tumbler with whipped cream and a strawberry on top. I took my dessert to a window sill to get some different light — a food tourist with a camera is a terrible thing — and the waiter, evidently thinking that my empty place meant that I hadn’t gotten any dessert, kindly brought another. And I ate that one too!

Friday, July 10. For our final dinner of the trip, we were driven to Deidesheim, where we convened at Zur Kanne, a restaurant and hotel that has been serving guests since 1160. We were tasting the wines of Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, a relatively youthful estate that has been producing mainly rieslings only since 1597. Perhaps by this time I was weary of orchestrated wine-tasting meals; as good as the courses were, my favorites were two simple soups, an amuse bouche of cold cucumber soup with creme fraiche, and the potato soup with wild-garlic pesto that came between the trout and the pork. Not that these soups weren’t fairly rich, of course.

Ah, yes, more trout and pork! Not a thing wrong with the trout — whole this time, and served with a sort of Mediterranean zucchini and tomato salad — or the silky smooth rack of young pork (Jungschwein) with a piece of corn on the cob, pierced by a fork, and roasted potatoes, and I bet travelers didn’t get food like this in the 12th century. Still, I wanted something light, something undemanding. At 110 hectares –almost 283 acres — Dr. Bürklin-Wolf is a huge estate by German standards, but several of the wines we tried, especially the Gaisböhl Grosses Gewächs Riesling trocken 2007 with the pork and the Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002 with dessert — strawberries with Grand Marnier and ice cream — were outstanding.

Going back through my notes, I think we tasted about 85 wines on this brief trip to Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. Many of these were noteworthy for intensity and purity and authenticity, but after much consideration and weighing their multitude of effects, I settled on these 15 as the best, 14 whites, mostly riesling, and one red, that is pinot noir (spätburgunder). Why do this? Why even make these differentiations and sort out a hierarchy of the “best?” Because that’s the kind of guy I am. I like lists and matters put in order, tied with a bow of finality. So there.

>Graf von Kanitz Riesling Trocken 2006, Rheingau.
>Weingut Jakob Jung Erbach Hoherrain Riesling 2002, Rheingau.
>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshoher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008, Rheinhessen
>Peter Jakov Kuhn Doosberg Riesling 2007, Rheingau
>St. Antony Nierstein Pettenthan Riesling G.G. 2008, Rheinhessen.
>Kuling-Gillot Ölberg Riesling G.G. 2007, Rheinhessen
>Battenfeld Spanier “CO” Riesling 2008, Rheinhessen
>Geysler Weinheimer Hölle Huxelrebe Spätlese 2008, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Hinter dem Schloss Weisburgunder Spätlese trocken 2007, Pfalz.
>Heimer Sauer Gleisweiler Hölle Riesling Beerenauslese 2005, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Königsbacher Ölberg Riesling 2008, Pfalz
>A. Christmann Idig G.G. Riesling 2003, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl G.G. Riesling Trocken 2007, Pfalz
>Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Gaisböhl Riesling Auslese 2002, Pfalz
>Heimer Sauer Spätburgunder 2005, Pfalz.
Image of Peto Scharff by Ernst Büscher; all others by F.K.

LL and I eat a steak perhaps once a month, and we want it to be a good one. Friday night, she took a rib-eye from Westwind Farms, a family-owned operation in East Tennessee that treks to Memphis every weekend to sell beef, pork and chicken, all organic, grass-fed, free-range animals, and rubbed it with a mixture of garlic, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Then (courtesy of a recipe in the May 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine), she reduced a half-cup of balsamic vinegar over medium heat, added shallots, olive oil and crushed red pepper, simmered some more and then whisked in parsley, capers and thyme, thus producing an almost indescribably intense Sludge of the Gods. I fired up the ol’ non-gas Weber — I don’t understand people who feel compelled to have whole kitchens on their patios — with hardwood charcoal (no briquettes, please! and no “lighter fluid” that stinks up a whole neighborhood!) and cooked the steak about three and a half minutes on each side, coming out perfectly medium rare on the inside and crusty on the outside.

Have mercy! The combination of the steak itself and its spicy rub with the incredible dark, rich, primeval sauce was — vegetarians don’t read this! — transporting. Yay on the cavemen who discovered the fruitful conjunction of fire and flesh.

For the wine, I wanted a classic sort of cabernet sauvignon whose structure and minerally nature would align with the steak’s charry, toothsome, earthy character, and I got what I wanted with Tom Eddy’s Elodian Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. This 100 percent cabernet deftly balances scrumptious, even sumptuous fruit with the rigor of dusty tannins and earthy minerals and a foundation of oak that’s primarily French but includes some American and Hungarian. Despite this arsenal of substantiality, the wine is clean and bright, vibrant with acidity and delicious with flavors of ripe, spicy and fleshy black currants and black cherries. It embodies the abundance of purity and intensity married to silkiness and invigorating presence that we relish in the best Napa Valley cabernet wines. 1,100 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.

… but blueberries and cherries are good for warding off the accumulation of uric acid that can lead to a gout episode (sorry to be clinical) and yogurt, well, yogurt is good for something, in fact, LL asserts that “yogurt is totally good for everything!” so in the interest of good health — I also despite that term “wellness” — I’m trying to eat more fruit and berries (pineapple is also a top-rated gout preventative), so a couple of days ago I cleaned some Rainier cherries, blueberries and raspberries and put them in a bowl, and I scooped out a spoonful of the no-fat Greek yogurt that LL buys, and I thought, “Ugh, yuck, gack, no, I can’t do this.” BUT, I had a brilliant idea! I put the yogurt in a little bowl, stirred in a dollop of honey and then very carefully, drop by drop, added some aged balsamic vinegar and stirred that in too. I bought this tiny bottle for LL for her birthday, oh, maybe 15 years ago. We were having lunch at the old 61 restaurant in the basement of the Barney’s on Madison at 61st Street and before leaving we wandered around the food shop. There was a display of long-aged and rare balsamic vinegars, and we were particularly fascinated by this one, from the firm of Cavalli cav. Ferdinando that cost $100 for 100 milliliters; friends, that’s 3.4 fluid ounces. Only 333 bottles were produced. When we were back in Memphis, I called a friend in New York and sent him the money to go to Barney’s and buy one of those precious bottles. And fresh mint from the Farmers Market, as you can see in these images.

Anyway, I’ll tell you that that was some yogurt I could get my tongue and taste-buds around!

So, the next time (today) I wanted to eat some fruit and berries and doctored yogurt — maybe there’s a market for this — we had peaches from the Farmers Market and strawberries that some friends had brought over. I washed and and peeled and sliced (not necessarily for everything) and jazzed up the yogurt and was about to take a bite when I had ANOTHER BRILLIANT IDEA!! I was really missing an opportunity to try a dessert wine. I mean, the fruit and yogurt concoction was for lunch today, but what the hell, that’s what being a professional is all about.

Actually, I have 10 or so dessert wines that I have been meaning to try, so here was a chance to knock one off, so to speak. I poked around in the wine fridge and pulled out a bottom of Mendelson Muscat Canelli 2002, Napa Valley. This is a fairly unusual wine for California in that it’s made in the French vin doux natural style, that is lightly fortified with grape spirits (to 14.2 percent alcohol), and then after fermentation it’s aged two years in French oak. The result is pungent and potent, a wine bursting with notes of peach and apricot, banana and ripe mango; it’s spicy, honeyed and roasted, and exhibits profound earthiness and minerality. The texture is thick, almost viscous, and after a few minutes in the glass the wine begins to exhibit signs of spicy, blond wood, as well as touches of bananas Foster, baked apples and macerated peaches. The finish brings in candied ginger and orange peel. Yes, this is quite an effort, best enjoyed with a few sips on its own or with a shortbread cookie, not, I have to say, with fruit, berries and pumped up yogurt. 250 cases of half-bottles were produced. Excellent. About $33 for a half-bottle.

So, I’m thinking, though the Mendelson Muscat Canelli ’02 was terrific — it inspires silence and contemplation — what would go better with my yogurt and berry lunch? Back to the wine fridge I went and pulled out a bottle of the Vino dei Fratelli Moscato d’Asti 2007 from Piedmont. The alcohol on this wine is only 5.5 percent. It’s incredible freshness and appeal results from the winemaking process; the must (that is the mass of crushed grapes) is kept just above zero, and when wine is needed for bottling, the must is fermented and the wine is bottled immediately. The color is pale straw; the bouquet offers a beguiling wreathing of lemon-lime, almond and almond blossom, a hint of apple, a touch of jasmine. The wine is sweet, lightly spritzy, delicately fruity in a citrusy-apple sense and though basically simple and direct, it’s also tasty and charming and was delightful with the yogurt, fruit and berries. That’s the twins, Castor and Pollux, on the label. Very Good. About $15.

If I say the words “veal chop,” then you know that LL was out of town; we don’t eat lamb or veal when she’s around. Let her go off to a conference or something, though, and I am at the Store of Forbidden Meat, salivating at the counter. So, in the image you see a veal loin chop, first marinated with red wine and rosemary for a couple of hours and then cooked in the cast-iron skillet over almost high heat for four or five minutes per side. Once it was cooked, I turned the burner down, poured some red wine in the pan, scraped the bottom of the skillet to get up all the little bits, and let it reduce. I boiled some fingerling potatoes for a few minutes, drained them in a colander and then smashed them a bit on the cutting board with the broad side of a knife. I scattered olive oil, salt and pepper on the potatoes and slid them under the broiler until they were nice and crusty. And, in case you’re wondering, not seen in the picture is a small plate of steamed green beans with lemon zest; yes, when LL is away on a trip, I still eat my vegetables. (Sometimes.)

I sat down to this scrumptious dinner with three bottles of Black Kite Pinot Noir from designated vineyards, “Redwoods Edge,” “Stony Terrace” and “River Turn,” all from 2007. Winemaker for the Anderson Valley estate is Jeff Gaffner; in this trio, he has crafted superb wines.
My first note for the Black Kite “Stony Terrace” Pinot Noir 2007 is “exquisite.” This is real pinot, ethereal yet shapely, elegant, yet displaying some tannic and earthy grip on the finish. Notes of black cherry, smoke, cloves and allspice, rose petals and lilacs waft from the glass. In the mouth, a lovely satiny texture is enlivened by clean acidity; hints of cranberry and cola, sandalwood and potpourri emerge after a few minutes in the glass. The wine just feels great in the mouth, with impeccable balance between substance and delicacy. Terrific winemaking. 194 cases. Excellent. About $52.
Do different vineyards make a difference? Gaffner makes these wines in exactly the same manner, so whatever happens in the winery won’t interfere with the expression of the grape and the vineyard site. In the case of the Black Kite “River Turn” Pinot Noir 2007, that philosophy translates to a pinot that opens with a frank display of openness, warmth and generosity that quickly takes on a high-toned, slightly austere attitude anchored in dried moss and autumn leaves. The wine is dark and spicy, lithe and supple, almost dynamic in its mineral-like muscularity; intense and concentrated flavors of black cherry, black current and plum are permeated by touches of leather and violets, while the finish brings in a high wild note of sour cherry and rhubarb. All of this is knit by essential acidity that can only be called glorious. 195 cases. Exceptional. About $52.
So, now we come to the Black Kite “Redwoods Edge” Pinot Noir 2007, a pinot of classic elegance, purity and intensity. Here are rollicking spice and zinging acidity that nip at your palate, infused with a strain of briary austerity and red and black currant flavors nudged by rhubarb and spiced apple. Serious tannic underpinnings provide unusually solid foundation for a pinot noir, yet the wine manages to maintain a sense of poised equilibrium. 219 cases. Excellent. About $52.

Jamie Oliver’s book Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion, 2007) has great simple recipes and advice about growing vegetables and being generally a good, concerned person. We just started cooking from it, having acquired it on sale at Williams Sonoma a few weeks ago. A typical recipe is the “Beautiful zucchini carbonara” — there’s a certain fey aspect to the book — which we made and enjoyed a lot. Basically it’s a carbonara sauce — eggs, cream, pancetta and Parmesan — with lots of thyme and sliced green and yellow zucchini. Actually, you could make it without the zucchini, but that’s not the point, is it? Anyway, the dish was delicious.

With the “beautiful zucchini carbonara,” we drank the Domaine Gerbeaux “Le Clos” Macon-Solutre 2008, made by Jean-Michel Drouhin. Solutre is one of 43 villages in the Maconnais, south of Burgundy proper, allowed to have its name on wine labels. This is essentially a single-vineyard wine, the grapes derived from “Le Clos” vineyard. Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, the wine is utterly charming. It’s clean and fresh and finely knit, sporting lemon curd and roasted lemon flavors permeated by delicate spice, a hint of the floral and burgeoning aspects of chalk and limestone. The finish brings in a touch of grapefruit astringency. The wine was a great foil for the richness of the carbonara sauce. Very Good+. About $18.

Imported by Bourgeois Family Selections, Swannanoa, N.C.

The “Salmon with Crisp(y) Skin” — sorry, but I hate that word “crispy”; it sounds like baby talk — came from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (Wiley, 1998). Simple as pie: Score the skin of the salmon, douse it with olive oil and cook it over the grill, skin-side-down, or under the broiler, skin-side-up. Wow, this came out super moist and tender and flavorful, and the crisp(y) skin practically crackled, and boy did it taste good! One is supposed to serve this with “gingered greens,” but we made do with green beans.

We tried the Mahoney “Las Brisas Vineyard” Riesling 2007, Carneros, a first riesling for this winery. Made completely in stainless steel, the wine is clean and fresh and spare, with roasted lemon, pear and lime zest scents and flavors buoyed by scintillating slate and limestone. An authentic whiff of petrol (or rubber eraser) paves the way for camellia and smoke and a deep note of earthiness. So far so good, but the wine falls a little short through the finish and loses character, though other wise this is enjoyable and elightful. 200 cases. Very Good+. About $18.

LL brought home a handful of precious chanterelle mushrooms a few days ago. “Time for chanterelle risotto,” she said. And I said, “Oh, yay,” because LL is a supreme concoctress of risottos. You see in the image how it turned out. Besides the chanterelles, it contains a few shiitake and dried porcini mushrooms, some basil and of course the chicken broth that provides the “stuffing” of the risotto. Chives are laid across the top. It was, in a word, divine, consisting of profoundly earthy bass notes from the mushrooms leavened by the lemony/minty-like lightness of the basil and the slightly creamy yet toothsome arborio rice.

We drank the Sanford Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, a blend from the winery’s estate vineyard La Rinconada and the neighboring Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, a close to legendary supplier of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. (Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, in Santa Barbara County, was purchased in November 2007 by Terlato Wine Group, which also markets the wines of Sanford Winery.) This is an incredibly attractive, ever seductive pinot noir. The bouquet revolves around smoky, spicy black cherry, cranberry and cola scents in an elegant wreathing of effects. The mouth-feel is stunning, as the wine flows across the tongue like cool satin drapery. Black cherry and plum flavors are highlighted by rhubarb, sandalwood and orange rind. Oak, tannin and acid, those building blocks of wine, achieve perfect balance through a smooth but slightly austere, foresty finish. Beguiling. Excellent. About $40.

This Salmon with Orzo Salad — from Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita (Artisan, 2008) — is simple to prepare and colorful to gaze upon. On the other hand, while enjoyable, it was not our favorite dish of all time or even from Stitt’s cookbook. The salad has fresh corn, right off the cob, cherry tomatoes, red onion, olives and basil and of course plenty of orzo; it can be prepared ahead, with a vinaigrette added at the last minute. The salmon is seared in a pan and then transferred to the oven for finishing, which is usually the way we prepare salmon anyway. Again, this is an enjoyable but not great dish. We found it a little bland and kept trying to pep it up.

The wine, though, was a triumph. This was the Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2007, St. Helena, Napa Valley. The 2008 version should be released within a month or so, but if you have the wine around or can find it, certainly try it. It’s beautifully mature, pure and intense, scintillating with concentrated minerality. Flavors of pear, melon and roasted lemon are permeated by dried herbs, lemongrass and crystallized ginger, all couched in a seductive texture that combines litheness and suppleness with snappy acidity and layers of almost talc-like softness. The oak regimen is interesting. The wine is barrel-fermented and then aged for 10 months in this set-up: 33 percent in new French oak barrels and puncheons; 55 percent in 1- to 3-year-old French oak; and 12 percent in stainless steel. The result is a sauvignon blanc of impressive sleekness, sophistication and allure. Drink through the summer of 2010. Excellent. About $32.

It’s too bad that sherry is such a misunderstood and abused wine, because its pleasures are manifold and even endowed with nobility. Unfortunately, describing how sherry is produced in a couple of paragraphs is like trying to summarize the Matrix Trilogy in an hour — “O.K., so, then Neo goes into this dark place that’s sorta like Purgatory and sorta like an android mosh pit, see, and then …” — but I’ll give it the ol’ college try.

Sherry — the name is jealously guarded by international trade agreements — is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in way far southern Spain, around on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.

Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino fino grape (95 percent) with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.

The solera system is essentially a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce. Unfortunately, modern times have seen the adulteration of the method through shortcuts and the addition of sweetening agents, mainly used for cheap versions and for so-called “Cream Sherry.”

The types of sherry can be confusing, certainly as confusing as the many types of Port. Basically, the system goes like this: Fino is the most delicate and elegant of sherries and the best to be served with tapas and other light appetizers. A fino from Sanlucar is a Manzanilla. If a fino, either through natural process or induced, loses its flor, the increased exposure to air will result in a darker, more flavorful sherry; this is the famous Amontillado. The sherries called Oloroso, fortified after fermentation to around 18 percent alcohol, never develop flor, and so their character is far different, being darker in color and more intense and concentrated. All of these are dry wines. The rarest and best sweet sherries are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, though vast quantities of sweet sherries are turned out using other, cheaper processes.

The motivation behind this brief disquisition is the tasting I did recently at home of three spectacularly good aged sherries from the house of Williams Humbert. These qualify for the recently permitted designations of V.O.S. (“Very Old Sherry”) if the wine has aged at least 20 years and V.O.R.S. (“Very Old Rare Sherry”) if the aging has been at least 30 years. These are sherries to be savored slowly, thoughtfully and appreciatively at the end of a meal, not to be partaken of as an aperitif or with tapas. For that function, there are many choices, but one of my favorites is the Emilio Lustau Solera Reserve Jarana Fino, as light, as dry, as delicately nutty, as elegant as you could desire (Excellent, about $19).

By the way, fino sherry should be served chilled, the others at room temperature.

The Williams Humbert sherries are imported by Kindred Spirits of North America in Miami, Florida.


The William Humbert Dos Cortados Rare Old Dry Palo Cortado Solera Especial falls between an Amontillado and an Oloroso style sherry; it spends at least 20 years in the solera. The color is medium-amber suffused with old gold. The bouquet is an intoxicating wreathing of roasted hazelnuts, toffee, baked apple, orange rind and toasted coconut. After such a heady display of aromas, it’s startling how dry, I mean bone-dry, this sherry is, both sensuous and austere; it tastes like smoldering peat, iodine, sea-salt and woody spices bound in a sumptuous yet not overwhelming texture that flows liberally across the tongue. There’s an after-burn of alcohol, spicy wood and vanilla. Quite a performance. Excellent. About $50.

Well might one cry, “For the love of god, Montressor!” The Williams Humbert Jalifa Rare Old Dry Amontillado Solera Especial spends at least 30 years in solera. The color is medium-amber with a hint of green-gold. It smells like scotch, warm, enrobing, inviting, richly spiced; one understands why wars were fought over cinnamon and cloves. Again, a briskly dry sherry (but so mellow, so smooth!) that embodies elements of pomander, wheatmeal, orange marmalade, the blondness of sawdust, the characteristic dusty woody (and woodsy) earthiness and mossiness, all given bass tones by a strain of deep, dark bitter chocolate. Oh yes. Exceptional. About $70.

Made from sun-dried grapes and aged at least 20 years in solera, the Williams Humbert Don Guido Rare Old Sweet Pedro Ximenez Solera Especial offers the color, but not quite the viscosity, of molasses. This, friends, reaches the Platonic extents of sweetness along an astonishing depth and range of effects: smoky brown sugar, roasted raisins, rum raisin ice cream with bananas Foster, almond brittle, orange zest and orange blossom honey. This is almost shamelessly enjoyable, but it does not offer quite the dimension or complexity of the Dos Cortados or Jalifa Amontillado, though its vibrancy, resonance and sheer appeal-power are admirable. Excellent. About $50.

Last night was one of those occasions when LL says, “Let’s not go to the grocery store. We’ll find what we need at home.” She’s good at this.

So: little sausage meatballs made by squeezing thumb-sized portions of sausage from the skin, well-browned in a skillet. Garlic and very ripe cherry tomatoes, fresh thyme and rosemary simmered in about half a cup of tomato broth left over from last Saturday, when I marinated tomatoes, green onions and basil in olive oil for the pizza (I always save the “tomato broth” from after the tomatoes drain), all this slowly stewed, as the tomatoes almost disintegrate and gain intensity. Then — simplicity itself — the warm pasta in the bowls, the meatballs, the sauce, some leaves of basil and Parmesan shavings. The result: One of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted, bountifully flavorful and concentrated, bursting with freshness but also with the savoriness of a sauce long-cooked. Wow!

For wine, I opened the Campo San Vito Valpolicella 2004, Classico Superiore Ripasso, a wine that also conveyed a sense of intensity and concentration. Ripasso is a method in which certain Valpolicella wines are “refermented,” in the March after harvest, on the lees of Amarone wines; the process lends these wines added richness and depth. The color here is almost motor-oil black, with a glowing blue/purple rim; the bouquet is minty and meaty, bursting with cassis, Damson plums, smoke, licorice and lavender and a whole boxful of dried spices. Yes, this is so exotic that it’s close to pornographic, but the wine is not too easy, on the one hand, or overbearing, on the other, because it possesses the acid and tannic structure, as well as two years in oak, to express its purposeful nature and rigorous underpinnings. Flavors of black currant and plum, with a touch of mulberry, are permeated by spice, potpourri and granite, as if all ground together in a mortar; the finish, increasingly austere, gathers more dust and minerals. Quite an experience and really good with our dinner. Limited availability in the Northeast. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Domenico Selections, New York.

Last night, of course, was Pizza & Movie Night around here, and by six p.m. I was fretting a bit about the wine. “We have tons of cabernets and zinfandels and merlots,” I said to LL, “but I want something a little lighter, a little more approachable, a little less alcoholic.”

“Like what?” she said.

“Oh, a carefree Dolcetto or Barbera, a Italian red with good acid and fruit, not too serious but not frivolous either.”

“You know,” she said, “you can always go out and buy a bottle of wine.”

Drum-roll. The earth stands still. Time stops.

Readers, you understand that I do not buy a lot of wine. I mean as a writer about wine and a reviewer of wine most of the wine I (and we) drink, taste, sip, comes to the house by UPS or FedEx. When I wrote a weekly national newspaper column (1984-2004), an ungodly amount of wine came to the building every day, I mean, cases of wine. I don’t get nearly as much wine now, but it’s a goodly number of bottles that can be handled very nicely, thank you very much.

Now, I’ll confess that for three years — 2005, ’06 and ’07 — I bought heaps of wine. I had my now-defunct website then and in December of ’06 started this blog, and I was always buying wines to “fill in the gaps,” and a couple of times a year I would host a blind tasting here at the house and I would buy wine, expensive wine, for those occasions. And Champagne, I mean, friends, you gotta have Champagne in the fridge! Finally, LL, said, “F.K., you’re outta control. We can’t afford this.” And she was right. You may say, “Wasn’t the wine you bought tax-deductible?” Well, sure, however the accountant could use the tax deduction to help out, but still, every month the old credit card statements come around, and they have to be paid.

So, the point is that I rarely buy wine nowadays, but when LL said, “You can buy a bottle of wine. What you’ll looking for should be pretty inexpensive,” it was like a revelation. Anyway, I got into the car and hied my way to The Wine Market, a retail store that’s about a 10-minute drive from our place. I’ve known the owner for years — he worked at another store for a long time, nursing his dreams — but since it was about 6:15 when I got there, he wasn’t around. I approached the counter and explained to the young people there what I was looking for. I did not say, “Hi, I’m Fredric Koeppel, world-famous wine-writer and blogger, blah blah blah.” What I did say was, “Hey, I need a wine for my pizza tonight, not a cabernet or zinfandel, nothing so big. The pizza is mainly marinated tomatoes and basil with a little pancetta. Maybe if you have a lighthearted Dolcetto or Barbera … ?”

A rather serious, even scholarly-looking young man detached himself from the others and said, “I think I can help you. Let’s go over here. We should be able to find something that will do. How much do you want to spend?”

“Oh, $15 to $20.”

I followed him to a section where a variety of fairly inexpensive Italian wines were displayed, and he pointed to a bottle of Colognole Chianti Rufina 2003. I am, I’ll admit, a bit leery of Chianti, a wine that too often turns out to be dried out and austere. Also, this was a 2003, almost six years old. In fact, I said, “This is a 2003, it’s almost six years old.”

“Right,” he said, “but the tannins have settled down really nicely and mellowed out. This is pretty smooth, and it’s got the fruit.” And it cost $17.

“O.K.,” I said, “I’ll try it.”

How was the wine? Let me put it this way: Basically, today’s post is in the form of a Thank You to the young man whose name I do not know for steering me completely in the right direction and, even more, for being courteous and accommodating.

Chianti Rufina is a region of Chianti production northeast of the city of Florence. Rufina was recognized as long ago as the mid-18th Century, before it became associated with the name Chianti, as an area capable of producing superior wines, because of the soil in the foothills of the Apennines and because the geography allows for cool temperatures at night. (Chianti was originally further south in Tuscany, around Siena.) Colognole, one of the best (and most picturesque) estates of Rufina, has been in the Spalletti family since the 1890s and is today operated by Contessa Gabriella Spalletti.

Colognole 2003 was exactly what I was looking for. Last night’s pizza was simple. I marinated three chopped tomatoes, red onion and basil in olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar for an hour, then drained the mixture carefully; we don’t want no stinkin’ soggy pizzas! I had a bit of guanciale — the pancetta I bought last month had turned so moldy that it looked like a science project gone horribly wrong — so I chopped that (I mean the guanciale, which is cured hog-jowl) and fried it. A few dots of fresh mozzarella and some grated Parmesan, and that was it.

The wine sported a lovely, warm medium brick-red color; aromas of dried red cherries and red currants with dried baking spices wafted from the glass. After a few moments, heady scents of lilac and rose petal began to weave their seductive way, followed, yet again, by elements of earthy minerals, moss and black tea. Those qualities, in a spare and lithe manner, make up the flavors too. Colognole typically ages 12 months in 660-gallon Slavonian and French oak casks, far larger than the standard 59-gallon French barrique, and then ages additionally in stainless steel tanks and concrete vats. The wine is indeed smooth and mellow, but it’s animated by a keen edge of acidity that keeps the package lively and taut (and that helped the wine work beautifully with the tomato-dominated pizza). What a treat! This is what old-fashioned Chianti is all about. Excellent for drinking through 2011 or ’12, and a Bargain at $15 to $17. Worth a Search.

Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.

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