Cooking at Home

When I open a new cookbook, I’m always a little disappointed if it doesn’t include wine recommendations. I like to see what the chef or writer visualizes as the ideal wine with each dish and, of course, if I agree or not. In Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2005), for example, the founder of well-known Greens restaurant in San Francisco recommends with the Brussels Sprout and Mushroom Ragout with Herb Dumplings “a New World Chardonnay with rich fruit and a little oak, from Santa Barbara, such as Sanford or Au Bon Climat.” Now we make this savory, deeply flavorful and autumnal dish at least once during the Fall and Winter every year, and Madison’s recommendation brings a shiver to my very being. “No, no,” I want to shout, “this needs something crisp and incisive, a dry stony Alsace riesling or pinot blanc or maybe a sauvignon blanc that has seen no oak whatever.” It’s also good with a lean, minerally Anderson Valley pinot noir. See how much fun this is!

Anyway, there are several methods of recommending wines in cookbooks, and I’m going to use two volumes, published last year, as illustration. First is The Fire Island Cookbook by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (Emily Bestler Books/ Atria, $30), and the second is The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by celebrated French chef Alain Passard (Frances Lincoln Ltd., $29.95), proprietor of the restaurant L’Arpège in Paris. DeSimone and Jenssen, known as the World Wine Guys — and whom I know slightly, having been on a trip with them and other writers in 2010 — had a busy year in 2012; in addition to The Fire Island Cookbook, they published Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide (Sterling Epicure, $24.95).

The Fire Island Cookbook presents 14 menus, one for each weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so the emphasis is on food for summertime, when the living is reputedly easy. Each menu includes wine recommendations, most for each separate dish on the menu; occasionally the authors offer alternative wines. The menus tend to follow themes — Rainy Day French Menu, Villa in Tuscany, A Midsummer Night’s Dinner — and so do the wines, at least in terms, generally, of their country of origin.

For example, the America the Bountiful menu consists of a corn and tomato salad, grilled romaine BLT salad, peppercorn-brined pork chops with grilled sweet peaches and salted chocolate caramel brownies. The wine recommendations are all American: for the first salad, the Hearst Ranch Three Sisters White Cuvée, a roussanne-marsanne-viognier blend from Paso Robles; for the second salad, a Boxwood Rosé, a cabernet franc-merlot-malbec blend from a winery in Middleburg, Va.; with the pork chops either the Hudson-Chatham Cabernet Franc from the Hudson River valley or the Heron Pinot Noir (Paso Robles, Monterey and Russian River Valley grapes); and for the dessert, with the combination of salt, chocolate and caramel, a tot of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. My choice with the pork chops would be the cabenet franc, though it’s good to have an alternative here because wines from New York state are very difficult to find outside of New York and Connecticut. Of course Virginia wines aren’t easily found outside of Virginia, but one appreciates how the wealth is spread around in this selection.

And so on, with Italian wines for the Italian dinner and also for Peak Summer Produce; French wines for the “Rainy Day”; Spanish wines for the Spanish-themed meal; all California for the Fourth of July Pool Party; an eclectic range of Spanish, Italian, Rhône Valley and Greek selections for the Mediterranean Odyssey. The whole package, deliberately kept light-hearted, is thoughtful and appropriate. No vintages are given for the wines because doing that would date the book. For the majority of the wines, the most recent vintages are the best, or ask your friendly neighborhood wine merchant for advice.

We find a different approach in Alain Passard’s The Art of Cooking with Vegetables. This is a stylish book whose innovative and somewhat radical seasonal recipes are illustrated with the chef’s colorful and cute collages, though I would rather have pictures of the finished dishes; I assume that luxury, with the necessary prop person, stylists and photographer, would have added to the cost of the book.

Forty-four of the 48 recipes in the book come with recommendations for French wines; the remaining items carry endorsements for mint tea, a cocktail and a couple of Spanish wines. The wine recommendations can be maddeningly vague. A nod to “a young Riesling from Alsace” does little help since rieslings from that region range from jarringly dry to off-dry to various levels of sweetness. “A full-bodied Spanish red wine” or “a dry white Spanish wine” open daunting possibilities. Would any full-bodied Spanish red or dry white wine do?

On the other hand, the recommendations in this cookbook can sometimes be annoyingly precise (without mentioning producers or estates), as in “A dry, fruity, white wine from the Loire or from Alsace, preferably made from the Chasselas grape” or “a Chardonnay, preferably from the Jura.” The nits I am picking here don’t actually have to do with the recommendations themselves, many of which sound intriguing if not downright risky, as with the sweet gewurztraminer from Alsace matching Globe Artichokes with Bay Leaves and Lime, as with the difficulty of finding many of the wines in the United States, at least outside markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Wines from the Jura region or Jasnières, at 160 acres the Loire’s smallest appellation making wines sold mostly in the neighborhood, or a Floc de Gascogne or Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh are about as easy to find in American as a June bug on a duck farm. And how do you translate a chardonnay from the Jura region to, say, California? What’s the equivalent in manner and effect?

If I ever get to L’Arpège again — I dined there in March 1990, a decade before Passard took the restaurant vegetarian — I would like to try some of these unusual food and wine suggestions, but as far as making a fit with American cooks, that aspect of the book doesn’t work.

Bittman being Mark Bittman, and the recipe was the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese from his recently published The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35). Mondavi being the Robert Mondavi Winery and its Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. The match: Exquisite, though allow me to emphasize, as anyone writing about food and wine pairing should, that there’s no such thing as one wine being the sole Platonic beverage to sip with one particular dish; both food and wine are more versatile than that “perfect marriage” trope would have you believe.

Anyway, I think Bittman wouldn’t mind that we added a handful of diced applewood-smoked bacon and a scattering on top of homemade breadcrumbs to enhance the dish, since he offers variations on many of the book’s recipes himself. And the combination of bacon, figs and blue cheese seemed a triumvirate almost unholy in its synergistic appeal. Cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts (and, notoriously, artichokes) can be difficult to match with wine because of the presence (Education Alert!!) of phenylthiocarbamides, which produce bitterness — the ability to detect PTC, by the way, is genetic — and the sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. Still, in this dish the Brussels sprouts are chopped and distributed throughout along with other ingredients and the whole shebang baked. For the wine, I chose the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010 almost randomly and with a trace of doubt. I need not have worried.

The grapes for the wine derive from the Wappo Hill Vineyard in the Stags Leap District (51 percent), from Mondavi’s well-known estate vineyard To Kalon in Oakville (30 percent) with the remaining 19 percent from other vineyards in Napa Valley, the point being to balance grapes from different microclimates in terms of the effect that varying temperatures and soils have on their development and character. Sixty-nine percent of the grapes were fermented and then the wine aged five months in French oak barrels, the rest in stainless steel tanks. The blend is 94 percent sauvignon blanc and six percent semillon grapes. Winemaker is Genevieve Janssens.

The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010, notable for restraint and elegance, offers a pale straw-gold color with faint green highlights. Aromas of lemongrass, roasted lemon and verbena sift from the glass with back-notes of freshly mowed hay, lime peel, fennel seeds and a bare whiff of fig and gooseberry; you detect just a touch of oak in a sort of blond shimmer of wood and spice. This seeming welter of sensations is subdued to an admirable structure of harmony and poise, though there’s nothing delicate or fragile about it. It’s a mouth-filling wine, not quite dense but certainly displaying pleasing heft on the palate; at the same time, there’s an element of fleetness and transparency, abetted by crystalline acidity. To the citrus and herbal qualities are added hints of quince and ginger, a slightly more emphatic dose of fig — there’s that semillon! — and an ineffable quality of sunny leafiness through the finish. Again, you feel the oak as an influence on the wine’s spicy nature and the suppleness of its texture. Somehow the wine made a terrific match with the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese (and Bacon), allowing everything rich and savory and slightly sweet about the dish to have complete integrated expression and in turn bringing out the savory, spicy qualities of the wine. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $20, an Incredible Bargain.

This wine was a sample for review.

Not really with Mark Bittman, ha-ha, but from his new publication, The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35), which we have pledged to cook from through the month of January, starting last week. Here’s a report on what we have prepared so far and the wines we tried with the dishes. The wines were samples for review.
The first recipe we tried from this inventive and thoughtful cookbook was the Pasta with Smoky Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Bacon, to which LL added broccolini to get something green in there. This is a breeze to make, occupying about an hour, “largely unattended,” as cookbook writers say, and absolutely savory and delicious. Bittman recommends wholewheat pasta; we used penne rigate made from farro, a grain the name of which always makes me feel as if I’m standing in a field in Denmark under a sky laden with rushing gray clouds while a brisk sea-wind tosses the heads of numberless wildflowers.

Anyway, we have been drinking quite a bit of wine made from the albariño grape recently. Though not quite as versatile as riesling, which we tend to chose over other white grapes, albariño offers plenty of charm and distinctive qualities; it’s a signature grape of Spain’s Rias Baixas region, in the extreme northwest, right above Portugal by the Atlantic Ocean. The Zios Albariño 2011, Riax Baixas, from the 6,000-case Pazos de Lusco winery, is a perfect example of what the grape delivers. Made all in stainless steel, the wine shimmers with a pale straw-gold color; it’s clean, fresh and bracing, showing blade-like acidity for intense crispness and liveliness and a combination of spicy, savory and salty that’s very appealing. Notes of roasted lemon, grapefruit and spiced pears are highlighted by hints of dried thyme and rosemary; the wine is dry, spare, lean and lithe, yet supple in texture, and it gains subtle depth and layering as the moments pass. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.

Imported by Opici Wines, Glen Rock, N.J.
Next, the Miso Soup with Bok Choy, Soba Noodles and Broiled Fish, a dish so easy to prepare that you’re surprised how delicious it turns out. We used salmon for the fish, though it could just about anything that stands up to broiling.

So you’re thinking, “Ah ha, we know FK. He’ll choose a riesling to drink with this Asian-themed soup!” Yes, you know me well, but to confound expectation, even my own, I slipped a bottle of the Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, from the white wine fridge, and it fit with the dish like fine silver spoons in a felt-lined drawer. As is traditional at this venerable winery, which has been run completely on biodynamic principles since 1996, winemaker Ivo Jeramaz gave the Chardonnay ’10 moderate exposure to new oak (40 percent new, 60 percent neutral; 10 months aging) and did not put it through malolactic fermentation. The result is a wine that allows its grapes to speak for themselves in terms of expressive tone, texture and presence. The color is mild straw-gold with faint green highlights; heady aromas of lemon and lemon balm, yellow plums and camellias and back-notes of lime peel and limestone waft from the glass. This chardonnay resonates with crystalline clarity, purity and intensity, yet its overall raison d’etre is balance and harmony; one marvels at how a wine of such brightness and elevation can be grounded in elements of clean earth and limestone minerality and possess a texture that’s both fleet in acidity and talc-like in density. More than just a successful chardonnay, it’s an epitome. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Exceptional. About $42.
Finally in this trio of dishes is the most unusual we tried so far: Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese.” Good thing for the quotation marks, because this “Milanese” has about as much to do with the classic preparation — veal escalopes pounded thin, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and sauteed in butter — as Madonna has to do with, you know, the Madonna. But never mind, this seemingly strange sauce — onion, garlic, bell pepper, sardines, tomatoes, cauliflower, raisins and pecans — is actually quite tasty, with a cannily blended panoply of flavors and sensations. Despite the sardines, which cook away to richness and depth, this is definitely a red wine item.

Something based on grenache would have been appropriate, like the vivid, spicy Chamisal Grenache 2009, Edna Valley, that I had with a cheese toast lunch recently, but instead I pulled out the Steven Kent Folkendt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Livermore Valley. (I wrote about the complicated history of the Mirassou family and its winery and vineyards and the La Rochelle and Steven Kent labels here.) This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels for 24 months, with an alcohol content of 14.6 percent. Expecting something like an aggressive blockbuster, right? No, friends, the Steven Kent Folkendt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ’09 is a model of how the right grapes can soak up that oak and turn it into a eature of spicy, supple resonance and understated yet persistent support. The color is dark ruby shading to magenta at the rim; the bouquet of ripe, slightly smoky black currants, black cherries and plums is permeated by notes of lavender and violets, bitter chocolate and a powerful graphite element that emerges from the background. This cabernet is characterized by superb balance, tone and bearing, though that graphite-like mineral quality intensifies as the moments pass and silky, dusty tannins burgeon into dimension from mid-palate through the finish, which delivers (after 45 minutes or an hour) a healthy dose of brambly, walnut-shell austerity. Improbably, this seemed perfect with Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese.” Production was 82 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $65.

So, Thanksgiving is over, but the memory lingers on, at least in the form of this post about a wonderful riesling that we drank with that day’s ritual dinner. The occasion is a highly traditional, even ceremonial, but we try to cook a pretty much completely different meal every Thanksgiving, both of the sake of variety and for the challenge. On the menu this year: Clementine-salt glazed turkey with red-eye gravy; sweet potato-bacon-thyme dressing; mixed winter greens with shiitake mushrooms; bacon-crusted cornbread; and for dessert a bourbon pecan tart and a pear crisp. Now we’ve all read the recommendations from many wine critics, reviewers and writers this time of year about what wine to drink with the multifarious, many-faceted sweet-sour-savory Thanksgiving feast, and basically it distills to this advice: Drink what you like except for cabernet sauvignon and heavily oaked chardonnay, and zinfandel is great but not high-alcohol versions. Many writers advocate drinking all American wines for this American celebration, while other say (implicitly), “Who gives a crap what country’s wines we drink, just pick wines you enjoy,” and the truth is, Thanksgiving dinner is not a wine tasting, nor should it be an event where wine dominates the discussion. It’s all for pleasure and enjoyment.

I’ll confess that I followed the all-American wine trope for years, even serving the same labels: a riesling from Trefethen, the Ridge Three Valleys zinfandel blend and the Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir, generally current vintages except for the Trefethen, which I like best about three years after harvest. This year, I decided to forgo the strictly patriotic route; after all, America is a country of immigrants, so why can’t we drank wine from Italy or France or Germany or anywhere on Thanksgiving. I stayed within the same grape categories, California of course for zinfandel, but Germany for riesling and France, specifically Burgundy, for the pinot noir. The roster: Weingut Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel; Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Russian River Valley; Aloxe-Corton Les Vercots Premier Cru 2008, Domaine Tollot-Beaut. We were a small group, so we skipped from the riesling to the Burgundy, a wine to which I will return in a subsequent post. The point of this entry is to celebrate the quiet though complete achievement of the Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, a sample provided by the trade group Wines of Germany.

The village of Veldenz lies south of the Mosel river and the town of Mülheim in the Middle Mosel region of southwest Germany. In a south-running valley there, the vineyard of Elisenberg — hence Veldenzer Elisenberg, first the name of the village, then the vineyard — was presented to Franz Ludwig Niessen in 1813 in gratitude for his personal payment of 3,000 thalers to Napoleon to prevent the destruction of Mülheim and Veldenz. Elisenberg remains in the Richter family today; Niessen was a fifth-generation ancestor.

The year, 2010, was a short vintage, short, that is, in duration and in the quantity of grapes. Despite some difficult stretches, the year produced many excellent wines, filled with nerve and vivacity.

The Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010 is a pale but radiant straw-gold color; aromas of ripe apples, peaches and pears (with an intriguing back-tone of red fruit, say cherry or currant) are woven with notes of jasmine, flint and limestone and a hint of honey, all melded with utmost delicacy and finesse; a few moments in the glass bring up wafting touches of quince and crystallized ginger. This innate delicacy does not mean that the wine is fragile or ineffable, though, because there’s a great deal of tensile strength here, manifested in the prominent stones and bones of crisp acidity and limestone minerality that deepen, vitally and vibrantly, as the wine passes through the mouth. Lovely, tasty peach, pear and lychee flavors open to something almost exotic, like guava or star-fruit, mildly spicy and just slightly sweet initially, though from mid-palate back through the finish the wine is quite dry. That finish is slightly bitter with lime peel and grapefruit and is rounded by a final plunge into the limestone pool. 9.5 percent alcohol. Despite its exquisite character, this wine, well-stored, should drink beautifully through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About — unbelievable! — $19.

Imported by Langdon Shiverich, Los Angeles.

Food and wine pairing — and was there ever a culture more concerned and nervous about that issue than ours? — doesn’t have to be about temples of cuisine and fine old wines. The perfect wine with a cheeseburger qualifies as a great match. Today’s entry in the “Damn, This Was Good!” series is a sterling example of the “It Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” principle. The dish was a simple bowl of spaghetti with an intense tomato sauce; the wine was the Steelhead Red Wine 2010, North Coast, an inexpensive blend of 65 percent zinfandel, 15 percent each cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and five percent syrah, aged for 12 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels. (And we won’t get into the issue here about “North Coast” being an appellation so ludicrously huge as to be meaningless as a “place.”)

Billed as “$4 Spaghetti That’s Almost as Good as $24 Spaghetti,” the dish is chef Roy Choi’s take on a pasta from Scott Conant’s restaurant Scarpetta in New York. Choi runs the Kogi group of food trucks in Los Angeles; Conant was chef and owner at L’Impero in Manhattan’s Tutor City what now seems an eon ago. I hope they’re friends. I’ll append a link to the recipe online at the end of this post, but a brief description will give My Readers an idea of how the sauce gets its powerful flavor. The recipe calls for simmering sliced white mushrooms in water for an hour, reducing the liquid to make a mushroom broth. Simultaneously, you’re simmering about a truck-load of peeled garlic cloves in olive oil, until the garlic gets toasty golden brown and platonically tender. Then you empty two large cans of tomatoes into a Dutch oven or something of similar size and shape, add the olive oil and garlic, bring to a boil, add the mushroom broth, turn the heat off (v. important), stick an immersion blender down in there and blast that stuff into a smooth puree. (You could use a potato masher, but the sauce won’t be as smooth.) Turn the heat back on and let the sauce simmer for about an hour until it thickens a bit. Yowsir, it’s fine stuff, intensely garlicky and deeply flavorful. Here’s a link to Cho’si recipe: here.

And here’s an F.K. Kitchen Hint, from the School of “Experience Is a Dear Teacher But Fools Will Learn No Other Way” (as my seventh grade teacher Mrs. Simpson told our class every fucking day!): When that immersion blender is running, don’t lift it out of the tomato sauce. Took me about an hour to clean the stove and the counter and the stainless steel backsplash and the tea kettle and the Vent-a-Hood and the floor, though the dogs cheerfully volunteered for the latter duty.

Anyway, the Steelhead Red Wine 2010, North Coast, embraces the lighter, brighter, immediately attractive side of the zinfandel grape, while allowing the other varieties in the final cut to add some darkness and oomph to a very tasty, blithely vibrant package. The color is deep ruby purple; this is clean and fresh, with black and red currants and blueberries galore — “Your Galleria of Berriness”! — hints of smoky graphite, lavender and potpourri and high notes of spiced cherry. Deftly balanced tannins, well-honed and slightly grainy, support black and blue fruit flavors that take on an edge of briers and brambles and touches of macerated plums, with a nimble pass-off to a dry, slightly sanded finish. Beside the fact that the wine was delicious, what cemented its sacred kinship with this assertive spaghetti sauce and made LL and I look at each other and say, “Yep, this is it,” was acidity of authoritative dimension and lively degree, a quality that clasped the acidity of the sauce with the fervor of a soul-mate and cut through the richness like a flame-thrower through a stack of telephone books. It made you want to laugh with happiness. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. Consulting winemaker was Hugh Chappelle. Very Good+. About $15, a Notable Value.

A sample for review. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Steelhead wines funds Trout Unlimited and other conservation projects.

Randall Grahm sold the certified biodynamic Ca’ del Solo Vineyard in Soledad in 2009, so this Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, is the next-to-last vintage. The vineyard’s name is a pun typical of Grahm’s well-known wit; though it sounds Italian, the name refers to the state penitentiary at Soledad, outside of whose gates the 160-acre vineyard lay, hence, House of Solo. (Ca is short for casa; the locution is common in Venice.) The presence of the prison also gave rise to Bonny Doon’s Big House brand of inexpensive wines, a label of which Grahm divested himself in 2007.

Not much nebbiolo is grown in The Golden State. According to the annual California Grape Acreage Report, in 2011 there were only 166 acres of nebbiolo, accounting for a crush of 380 tons; total number of tons of all red grapes crushed in 2011 was 1.9 million, so we can see that nebbiolo is a specialty, nurtured principally by devotees, if not fanatics.

Nothing heavily extracted here, the color of the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is a lovely, limpid cerise-scarlet color with a faint garnet rim. The bouquet offers aromas of dried currants and black and red cherries with spiced and macerated aspects and hints of black tea and dried orange zest with leather and rose petals. About half the grapes for this wine were air-dried before being crushed, lending subtle notes of fruitcake in the nose and succulence on the palate, though the wine is completely dry and far more elegant than obvious. The wine sees neither new wood nor small barrels (aging in tanks and puncheons of French oak), and we wish that more producers in Piedmont would return to this old-fashioned way of making Barolo and Barbaresco from their nebbiolo grapes, instead of being slaves to the allure of the barrique. Anyway, for a wine as spare and reticent as this is, it delivers juicy black and red fruit flavors supported by smooth and slightly dusty tannins that provide a bit of earthy grip on the finish; otherwise, this nebbiolo goes down like warm satin. Nor is the grape’s legendary acidity lacking; the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is lively and vibrant. 13.7 percent alcohol. Production was 765 cases. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.

This wine was a sample for review.

We drank the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, with medium rare tri-tip roast cooked (with a slight variation) according to a recipe in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, 2009). This requires you to coat the meat with salt, pepper, sweet paprika and piment d’Espelette, the latter made from ground chili peppers grown only in the French Basque commune of Espelette and which I could not find anywhere, so I substituted smoked sweet paprika, Urfa pepper and chili maresh. Anyway, you wrap the roast in plastic and leave it in the refrigerator for 24 hours and take it out 30 minutes before it’s time to sear it in oil and butter with a smashed garlic, a sprig of rosemary and five thin lemon slices; the garlic, rosemary and lemon slices are placed on top of the roast and it all goes into a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes. Be sure to let the roast rest on a plate or cutting board for half an hour before slicing to let the juices redistribute. Tri-tip is not the most tender cut (which is why it’s relatively inexpensive) but it delivers a lovely, mild meaty flavor, enhanced, in this recipe, by the piquant spiciness of the coating. If you don’t have the cookbook, the blog Rocket Lunch reproduced the recipe here. We ate the tri-tip, sliced thinly, with roasted potatoes and a succotash of fresh corn, edamame and red bell pepper. A great dinner and bottle of wine.

The carignan grape doesn’t get much respect. The entry in the Third Edition of the formidable Oxford Companion to Wine (2006) comments that carignan “could fairly be called the bane of the European wine industry,” that it is “distinguished mainly by its disadvantages” and that “some interesting old Carignan vines [may] be treasured but let it not be planted.” Even Oz Clarke, who in his Encyclopedia of Grapes (2001) frequently displays a somewhat rueful fondness for off-varieties, says that the grape “is now in decline but not fast enough.” Ouch! Well, he does at least concede that “only in exceptional sites, with first-class exposure and good drainage, and with very good winemaking can it produce fine wine on its own.”

Let me proffer a candidate for such an example. This is the Meli “Dueño de la Luna” Carignan 2009, Maule Valley, Chile. The wine is produced on an estate purchased in 2005 by veteran winemaker Adriana Cerda and her three sons, who were attracted by the 60-year-old carignan and riesling vines. Meli “Dueño de la Luna” Carignan 2009 is 100 percent varietal. The wine fermented in stainless steel tanks with native yeasts, and it aged one year in stainless steel and six months in old French oak barrels, so there’s no taint of new oak about it; rather, it’s notable for its fresh, clean appeal and integrity. The color is vivid dark ruby-purple. Aromas of blueberries and blueberry tart, red and black currants and plums display a high, wild note that sings of cloves and sandalwood and potpourri, all underlined by penetrating elements of cocoa powder and graphite. It’s a fairly substantial wine that remains lithe, light on its feet, fleetingly lithic; in other words a happy marriage of power and elegance enlivened by vibrant acidity and well-mannered and burnished tannins that support juicy, spicy black and blue fruit flavors. Meli “Dueño de la Luna” Carignan 2009 is quite dry, and it gains intensity and concentration as the moments pass, leading to a finish that brings in a slightly austere character of underbrush, moss and dried porcini. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $45.

We gladly drank the Meli “Dueño de la Luna” Carignan 2009 with a dinner LL prepared of pork chops given a coating of sweet paprika and spicy coffee rub, then seared in our old cast-iron skillet, and wholewheat penne pasta with chopped and sauteed beet stems and greens with a few yellow plums. A terrific meal, deeply rich and flavorful, with the perfect wine for the moment.

Imported by Global Vineyard, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.

Casting around for a wine to sip with Vinegar-Braised Chicken with Leeks and Peas, I opened, with a deft twist of the wrist, the Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009, Mosel, and it turned out to be a great match with the dish. (The first time I made this, we drank the Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010, Paso Robles, reviewed here.) The 1/4 cup of white balsamic vinegar in the sauce, the slowly sauteed leeks, and the peas and tarragon added before serving lent the dish a touch of savor and sweetness, with which the Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009 resonated in fine fashion.

Wehlener Sonnenuhr is one of the Middle Mosel region’s most celebrated locations; lying along the north bank of the Mosel, where the river makes a broad sweep to the northwest around the hill of Schwarzlay, the vineyard rests on soil of shallow, stony slate. Sonnenuhr is the vineyard; the village of Wehlen provides the commune designation.

Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009 presents a pale almost transparent straw-gold color; aromas of green apples, apple skin, ripe peaches and pears are melded to hints of limestone and flint and notes of cloves and lychee. The wine is exquisitely honeyed and spiced, a golden fandango of juicy peach and pear flavors and slightly roasted lemon with ginger and quince, all of these wedded with the utmost delicacy, refinement and elegance and enlivened by scintillating acidity. The wine imperceptibly segues to dryness in mid-palate, leading to a finish that adds more limestone and shale and just a tinge of lychee and pink grapefruit. Absolutely lovely, a limpid vision of glittering tinsel strung on a structure of tensile strength. 8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 to ’19, well-stored. Excellent. About $33.

A sample for review.

I wanted a deftly handled chardonnay to drink with LL’s roasted sea bass and pancetta with braised leeks, sweet potatoes and black garlic, so I plucked a bottle of Trefethen Estate Chardonnay 2010, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, from the fridge, and it delivered all the purity and intensity that I was looking for. This is a chardonnay — aged only nine months in French oak and only 16 percent new barrels — that embodies Platonic ideals of poise and integration, subtlety and elegance. Classic scents of ripe pineapple and grapefruit seem fairly typical until a few moments in the glass bring out an extraordinary display of thyme, lavender and bay leaf, quince and ginger, with back-notes of shale and limestone. The wine is both full-blown juicy and rigorously dry, its flavors of fresh apples, lemon curd and baked grapefruit cut by clean vibrant acidity and scintillating limestone-like minerality, so that its lovely soft dense almost powdery texture is bolstered and balanced by crispness and a sense of vivid alertness; yes, I’m talking about character and breeding. The alcohol content is a very comfortable 13.5 percent. Now through 2015 or ’16, well-stored. Winemaker was Zeke Neeley. Excellent. About $30, though prices around the country go as low as $22.

A sample for review from a wholesaler.

Last night LL made a damned amazing pasta dish using the recipe for salt and pepper seared shrimp from Sally Schneider’s The Art of Low-Calorie Cooking (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1990; large-format paperback edition 1993), a book we have cooked from so many times that the pages are coming loose and the recipes are spotted and stained; try to track it down. (The page with the “Cajun Meat Loaf” recipe actually has a curiously shaped smear of blood, like a clue in an Agatha Christie mystery novel; “I say, Poirot, look at this curiously shaped smear of blood in this cookery book! And what the devil is Cajun?”) Anyway, LL had made pesto from a bunch of basil we brought home from the Memphis Farmers Market on Saturday, and she tossed the pesto and the spicy, peppery shrimp with whole grain fettuccine (also from the MFM); that was it, brother, and it was great.

I opened a bottle of the Hugel “Hugel” Gewurztraminer 2008, from Alsace, and was glad that I did, because the spicy element in the wine — “gewurz” means, and is almost onomonopaeic for, “spicy” — and its vivid acidity proved to be a good foil for the dish, while its intensely floral and fruity qualities acted as a sort of congenial buffer. The “Hugel” designation indicates that the wine is part of the ancient estate’s “Classic” line of wines, and by ancient I mean founded in 1639. Grapes for these “Classic” wines derive either from estate vineyards or local vineyards under long-term contract. The wine opens with gentle whiffs of ripe peach and pear over a mild note of lychee; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of quince and yellow plum, honeysuckle and rose petal and undercurrents of cloves, allspice and Evening in Paris, the perfume in the blue bottle we all used to buy at the local drugstore for Mother’s Day. The description so far makes the wine sound like a simple sort of an attractive, even seductive “don’t-bother-your-pretty-little-head” wine, but in the mouth matters get a bit more assertive as the spicy character gains momentum, the shimmering acidity and limestone-like minerality take control, and the wine turns itself willingly over to its structural components. Not that there’s not plenty of supple, suave apple, peach and pear flavors available for your pleasure, all of this devolving to a finely-knit, spicy, mineral-inflected finish. Not acutely intense — you would have to go back to 2006 for that — but very tasty and satisfying. 13 percent alcohol. Currently, the 2009 version of this wine is on the market, while the 2007, which you can still find in pockets around the country, is drinking very nicely and is likely discount-priced. Very Good+. Prices range ludicrously, as in from about $18 to $28, with most falling into the $22 to $25 point.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.

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