The Pirate of Dogliani

The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

Sometimes a wine refuses to play to type. Take Dolcetto. Conventional wisdom has it that this classic Piedmont grape makes soft, round and fruity wines meant to be consumed young, while your Nebbiolo is in the cellar maturing. Even the best examples are measured against these modest expectations. Yet after tasting San Fereolo Dogliani, a Dolcetto of structure, aroma, texture, earth and dark austere fruit, this paradigm no longer rings true. Unmistakably a wine of Piedmont, it had little in common with the easy drinking wines normally associated with the variety. It demanded a broader view of the grape’s potential.

The manager at Eataly Vino told me that the San Fereolo needs to be appreciated in context of wines from the town of Dogliani, a DOCG just south of Barolo at the foot of the Alps, where Dolcetto vines are awarded pride of place alongside hazelnuts trees and untamed forests. As I tasted other bottles from Dogliani, it was clear that Dolcetto di Dogliani is a darker, deeper and more structured creature than Dolcetto from its neighbors to the north. Still, the San Fereolo stood out. There was something beyond a sense of place that informed its remarkable depth. So I wrote a fan letter to the estate’s importer, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, and arranged to speak with the owner, the passionate iconoclast and accidental winemaker Nicoletta Bocca.  

Twenty-five years ago, Nicoletta was living in Milan and working in fashion and industrial design when her friend Alessandro Fantino, the owner and winemaker of the Barolo estate A&G Fantino, said, ‘I want to take you to one of the best places I have ever seen to live.’ He drove Nicoletta and her husband to Dogliani where at the crest of a hill covered with overgrown vineyards they saw a fantastic house in complete disrepair next to an octagonal church. ‘It was a dream place for people from Milano,’ she recalls.

Nicoletta's connection to the region ran deeper than agrarian fantasy. During WWII, her father fought as a partisan alongside the esteemed Barolo producer Bartolo Mascarello. The men stayed close and twice a year throughout her childhood she and her father would visit Bartolo to stock up on wine and food. For much of that time Alessandro Fantino was the Mascarello estate’s oenologist and vineyard manager, and the circle of friendship grew.

‘Promise me you won’t clear the Dolcetto vines,’ some of which dated back to 1936, Alessandro told her when she purchased the house. ‘We’ll take care of them the first year and then you can make a choice.’  

Life in the vineyard changed Nicoletta. Viticulture became a kind of Zen discipline. ‘In Milano, if you want to work late into the night, you turn on the light and you work,’ she observes. ‘Here you are not your own master. You are part of nature. You have understand what is around you and work only when the light and the weather permits, on the timetable dictated by the vineyard.’

In 2004, she studied biodynamics to deepen her knowledge of grape cultivation and the vicissitudes of nature, and she now maintains her vineyards according to its strict principles. The practice is essential to her, but also only a starting point, a means to pristine raw materials. ‘If you are working organically or biodynamically and think that is the goal, you are on the wrong path,’ she stresses. ‘Biodynamics help you take character from your terroir. It is a tool for having a wine that speaks about the place, grape and vintage.’

When you ask Nicoletta what sets the San Fereolo apart from other Dogliani, she launches into a description of her winemaking practices. Picking the grapes when the tannins in the seeds ripen; fermenting in large wooden vats using ambient yeast; macerating the juice on the skins for at least twenty days; leaving the wine in barrel on its lees for two years; and then cellaring the individual bottles for another four years before releasing the wine to market, ready to drink.

The regime is grounded in the dual nature of the Dolcetto grape. Translated literally, Dolcetto means ‘little sweet one,’ but it has two faces: one is the fruity side you taste when you bite into it, the other is the polyphenols and tannins that come from the seeds when they ripen. Nicoletta's winemaking practices are dedicated to harvesting the spicy earthy aromas that come from the seeds when the grapes are ready to be picked.

‘You have a choice,’ she says. ‘You can have a short maceration and a fruity wine that tastes like everyone else’s, or you can behave like Dolcetto is a serous wine and focus on extraction. For me, it’s like being in the ocean. You can’t run away from the big wave, you have to dive through it. I dive into the wine and accept all of its characteristics, then I find a new balance.’ The long maceration is the deep dive. The new balance is achieved through the extended time the wine spends in the barrel and the cellar before release, this gives the tannins and polyphenols the opportunity to soften and integrate leading to an elegant wine with restrained dark fruit, structure and persistence.   

'My colleagues complain that nobody understands Dolcetto,’ she elaborates. ‘But nobody is making the effort to show people that the wine can really be interesting.  It’s like being in love with a woman you fear doesn’t know you exist and giving up instead of fighting to get her attention.’

Nonetheless, Nicoletta’s uncompromising vision for Dolcetto is not fully rewarded in the market. Most consumers will pay more for a mediocre bottle of Nebbiolo fermented in stainless steel than the wine she dotes on, and will question why they should purchase her Dolcetto when examples from Alba can be had at at third of the price. Meanwhile, leading Barolo producers often sell fresh and fruity Dolcetto as entry-level offerings, at the same time they are buying prime Dogliani vineyards to make Langhe Nebbiolo, which is also more profitable that Dolcetto made under the Dogliani DOCG label.

Rocca Ciglié I Life with Wine.jpg

‘Nobody in Barolo said, we are going to say that Dogliani is not an important wine so that the farmers will be so poor that we can come and buy their land,’ Nicoletta reflects. ‘But that is what happened. Whenever I can get in the car and turn my back to Barolo I feel relieved. When I can no longer see Monforte d’Alba, I am like a pirate in the Caribbean with my ship!’

That's not to say Nicoletta has limited her efforts to Dogliani. Last winter, she attended a conference in Rocca Ciglié, a town in the Piedmont’s Cuneo province near Liguria. Set at a higher elevation and closer to the sea than Dogliani, Rocca Ciglié has been touted as prime vineyard land for Dolcetto since the eighteen fifties. The event’s purpose was to begin to revive life in the village and to find people to lease the town’s ancient vineyards, because its population is aging and its young people are moving away.  'I bought land,’ Nicoletta admits. ‘I arrived just in time. One year later and the vineyard would not have been there anymore. The man who was farming it couldn't go on being old and without help.’

‘Old vineyards are treasures full of the wisdom of plants. Losing them is painful,’ she adds. ‘I hope to do my best for this place and for the people who worked there long before I was born.’

In the fall Nicoletta harvested the grapes for her debut Dolcetto di Rocca Ciglié.  Given the high altitude and fresher temperatures, the tannins in the seeds were greener than she is accustomed to.  Still, she made a long maceration after which she tasted the wine. The Rocca Ciglié had lower alcohol and more aromatics than her Dolcetto from Dogliani, yet showed no signs of bitterness. Beyond the local climate, she attributes the difference to the region's ancient soils coming from a place deeper down in the ocean.  

It appears that the world of premium Dolcetto is about to have an important new reference point from Nicoletta Bocca, the Pirate of Dogliani. 

  


10 Wines Dogliani


Pot Roasted Leg of Lamb with Garlic & Olives

The dark earthy fruit and integrated tannins of the San Fereolo Dogliani complement this fork-tender lamb with a rich savory sauce of olives and herbs.  

Ingredients for 6-8 servings

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 whole leg of lamb, bone in and trimmed, 6-8 lb.
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 cup tomatoes, peeled seeded and chopped
  • 1 head garlic, cloves individually peeled and crushed
  • 1 bunch thyme, tied with kitchen twine
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 cup niçois olives, pitted
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade*  

Place a large heavy-gauge roasting pan on the stovetop so that it stretches across two burners. Warm the pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Season the entire lamb with salt and pepper. Once the oil is warm, add the lamb to the pan and slowly sear the exterior, turning occasionally until the roast is golden brown on all sides, about 30 minutes.

Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to take on a straw color, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme and ¼ cup of white wine. Cover with a lid or heavy gauge aluminum foil and braise the lamb for 30 minutes, then turn the lamb, add another ¼ cup of wine, cover and continue cooking for another 30 minutes.  Repeat this for two hours, until all the wine has been used.  Add the olives, cover and braise for another 30 minutes. 

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board tented with aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, over a low flame, whisk t1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable stock at a time into the sauce that has accumulated at the bottom of the roasting pan, until it has the consistency of a thick gravy. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to a small bowl.

Slice the lamb against the grain. Arrange on a warm platter. Ladle just enough of the garlic and olive sauce over the lamb to keep the meat moist, and then pass the remainder of the gravy around the table for guests to help themselves.

*If you don’t have homemade chicken stock on hand, while the lamb is cooking combine 3 cups of water, a peeled carrot, a celery stalk and one leek, onion or shallot.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes.  This stock will be far more flavorful then prepackaged chicken stock, unless you have access to fresh made stock from a specialty market. 

A Buyer's Guide to Sustainable Caviar & Blanc de Blancs Champagne

Photo by LauriPatterson/iStock / Getty Images

A decade ago, buying the black pearls was straightforward. Whether Russian or Iranian, almost all sturgeon eggs came from the Caspian Sea, and it was common knowledge that beluga was the best, followed by osetra and sevruga. In January 2006, this knowledge became as useful as an eight-track tape. A toxic mix of pollution, poaching, and overfishing had put 85% of the global sturgeon population at risk, and the worldwide trade of wild caviar was finally banned. Nonetheless, the global appetite for the coveted delicacy did not disappear, and that demand has since created a dynamic market for sustainably farmed sturgeon. Today, anyone can legally purchase, via the Internet, caviar of exceptional quality from well-run caviar farms.

You just have to know how to shop.

As before, caviar should be evaluated by three ­criteria: taste, texture, and tone. The taste should be fresh, nutty, and creamy. There should be no fishy aroma or aftertaste. The texture of the eggs should be firm, smooth, and a little moist to the touch, never sticky or wet. Upon taking a spoonful, you should be able to use your tongue to separate the grains on the roof of your mouth. Tone simply means color. Some people prize golden caviar; others prefer silver hues or shiny black pearls.

You also need to know your producer. Like heirloom peaches and grass-fed beef, caviar has entered the age of the celebrity farmer. The key to buying high-quality cured sturgeon roe is to know its origins, which does not mean fine-food purveyors like ­Petrossian and Zabar’s, which repackage caviar under their own labels. It means knowing the farms from which they source their product. It is a geographically diverse group that includes—but is by no means limited to—Caviar Giaveri in Italy, Galilee Caviar in Israel, Mottra Caviar in Latvia, Kaluga Queen on China’s Russian border, Royal Belgian Caviar, and Fish Breeders of Idaho. Prices vary from $53 to $394 for a 30-gram tin.

Pristine water is why these particular farms are sought out. The best fish farms have a superb water source and use recirculating aquaculture to cleanse and re-oxygenate the water in their pools. Many of these pools are also temperature controlled to mimic the sturgeon’s natural spawning cycle. Latvia’s Mottra Caviar, whose farm has earned a seal of approval from the official Slow Food organization, takes the purity of their environment to the extreme. To ensure a fresh product with no muddy aftertaste, the sturgeon are raised in temperature-controlled pools with water pumped from artesian wells 500 feet below the earth. Hangers equipped with air-filtration systems protect the pools from pollutants and local birds.

Some fine-caviar purveyors, such as Browne Trading, have started cobranding with premium sturgeon farms in order to create more transparency in the market. “This way, the consumer knows ­everything about their caviar, from the sturgeon’s species, to its diet, to its country of origin and how it was raised,” says Rod Browne Mitchell, Browne’s president. Whether your local caviar purveyors cobrand or not, they should be able to tell you exactly where their caviar was sourced and how it was cultivated.

Species matter, as well. Beluga caviar has been banned in the U.S. since October 2008, though China’s Kaluga Queen exports a beluga hybrid that is a true indulgence. Sevruga is nearly impossible to raise in captivity and has mostly disappeared from the marketplace. Of the traditional caviars, only osetra remains available, and it has become the connoisseurs’ caviar of choice. Keep in mind that osetra comes exclusively from Russian sturgeon.

Be careful: “Siberian Osetra” is a misnomer used to confuse consumers. Osetra simply means sturgeon in Russian, and ­Siberian sturgeon is a separate species that is far easier to breed. The white-sturgeon transmontanus is, in contrast, increasingly considered a premium-quality caviar. Native to our West Coast, it has a fine grain and nutty flavor similar to osetra.

Finally, be sure to check the “sell by” date. Caviar is a cured product whose flavor evolves and matures in the months directly following the harvest, but it does not stay fresh forever. Most ­experts recommend consuming caviar within six months of packaging. If you open a jar of caviar and it smells fishy, return it to the store. Most retailers won’t balk at making you whole.

This article was originally published in PENTA/Barron's


The Harmony of Caviar with Blanc de Blancs Champagnes  

Blanc de Blancs I Life with Wine.jpg

When serving caviar, I prefer to pour Champagne that is either one hundred percent chardonnay, known as a Blanc de Blancs, or one with a base wine dominated by the grape variety. Chardonnay lends Champagne its elegance. It brings freshness, structure and aromas of white flowers. What's more, the alchemy of Champagne production (second fermentation in the bottle and years in the cellar resting on sediment), encourages chardonnay-based Champagnes to develop the same characteristics we associate with fine caviar and its accoutrements. The wines become creamy on the palate, tasting of almonds and hazelnuts. They take on a suggestion of the sea, reflecting the chalky soil the vines are grown on. There are even hints of brioche, evocative of lightly buttered toast points. Of course, Blanc de Blancs Champagnes don't taste like caviar, instead they suggests the same notes. The flavors are complementary and this creates a sense of harmony when the two are served together.  


10 Champagnes for Caviar

A Tribute to Wineries that Sell Mature Wines

British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Over Christmas break, after not skiing for fifteen years, we ventured to northern Vermont to a small family mountain to see if we still liked the sport. We obeyed all the rites and rituals of such trips: luggage, equipment, provisions and gifts filled our car so that our rear vision was blocked, and if you opened a door too quickly a bag or a child might come tumbling out.

With plenty of fresh powder and not-too-frigid temperatures, we rediscovered that skiing is a great way to spend a winter day outdoors. But the food on the mountain was strictly from hunger. To call it institutional would be an insult to some of the fine food now being served at schools. Within twenty-four hours, we vowed to take all our meals in the condo.

Which brings me to lunch on the second day in Vermont, the spread of charcuterie and artisanal cheeses our traveling companions had brought from Connecticut and the magnum of 2001 Domaine Savoye Morgon we’d found a few months earlier on the shelf of our neighborhood wine store, Flatiron Wines.

You can eat with a certain kind of abandon after a day of skiing. As we sat at the dining table surrounded by mountain views, reaching our knives across one another for a slice of country pâté or aged cheddar, and refilling our glasses from a seemingly endless bottle tasting of dark berries and anisette, we may as well have been in St. Moritz.  The improvised lunch is among my favorite meals of 2016. The lusty deliciousness of the charcuterie was elevated by the Morgon, not because it was an important bottle in the classic sense, but because it was a beautiful example of its type that had reached full maturity. Of the ten Cru Beaujolais appellations, the wines of Morgon are the most structured and long lived and the granite soils of the Côte du Py, where the Savoye family has been tending vineyards since the eighteen fifties, yield the appellation’s most complex offerings.

The bottle must have come from a private collection, because fifteen-year-old magnums of Savoye are not often spotted on a shop’s bottom shelf. They are the kind of wine you might find rummaging around the cellar of a friend with good taste, ample storage and a healthy dose of restraint. I’ve purchased the current vintage as a grab-and-go wine more than a dozen times, but until that lunch I had not known its potential for depth and elegance, the touch of truffle and fine drying tannins in a rich wine that was still lively enough to be refreshing. The bonus was that with only 12.5 percent alcohol, the wine eased, instead of kicked, us into après-ski naps. 

When I think about building a personal collection, these are the kind of bottles I covet. Affordable wines of exceptional quality, the result of rigorous and ethical viticulture, which are too humble for the auction circuit, yet often take on remarkable depth, complexity and charm with bottle age. The effects of time on these wines are profound. It’s akin to the difference between listening to an accomplished vocalist site read and hearing a performance of a song they’ve sung forever. You don’t need musical expertise to notice the smoothed edges, increased fluidity and more nuanced presentation.

Until this fantasy collection bears fruit, I’m grateful for the handful of exacting wineries that make a point of not releasing their wines until they are showing maturity. There is a great distinction between this and manipulating wines with an eye toward engineering approachability in their youth. This is the application of patience, vision, and financial resources to ensure wines have the opportunity to evolve. 

Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

The Rioja producer, R. Lopez de Heredia, holds their red and white reservas in barrel for six years and then in bottle for another decade before releasing them to market at a stage of development they identify as reminiscent of “gentlemen who have nobly grown old, while still maintaining some of their youthful characteristics.”

The northern Piedmont producer Vallana works according to the same principle. Their Gattinara sees two years in barrel and then another eight years in bottle before it is available for purchase. I marvel at this wine every time I open a bottle. What a pleasure it is to find mature traditional nebbiolo for less than thirty dollars.

Christopher Howell, the winemaker at Cain, the Napa winery on the crest of Spring Mountain known for its Bordeaux-style blends, recalls having a conversation about the benefits of bottle aging with Cain’s owner, Jim Meadlock. Afterwards, Jim queried, “If these wines develop with age and evolve slowly, why are you willing to release them too soon? Why don’t you hold some so people can experience what they’re like with time?” The winery now reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest to select shops and restaurants. The wines are also available directly from the winery. 

Of course, in Champagne, aged wine is an integral part of the culture. Reserve wines, wines from previous years, ensure consistency in house blends. The Champagne house Henriot took this practice to an extreme with its limited edition Cuve 38, a Champagne in which the base wine is an ever evolving blend of Grand Cru chardonnay from the Côtes des Blancs dating back to 1990. Vintage Champagnes, declared after an outstanding growing season, rest in the cellar on their lees for at least three years and usually far longer. For example, the Charles Heisieck 2005 Brut Millésime is just now being released. It is this extended time in contact with the sediment from the second in-bottle fermentation that gives all Champagne its rich and savory character.

Thinking about the transformative power of time, I grew fixed on the image of finely sliced onions warming over a low flame, slowly evolving from something sharp and tart into the rich confiture atop a Provencal pissaladière, as in the recipe below. Over the course of an hour, you can see the changes in the onion’s texture, smell the evolution of its sugars, and taste how these elements come together. The trick is not to rush the process, to resist raising the flame and browning the onions, or adding sugar to bring sweetness to the onions faster than slow cooking permits. The dish rewards patience. As the pissaladière's shortbread crust crisps in the oven, it begs to be served with a glass of the beguiling 2004 R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja Blanca Reserva, which to our good fortune is the current release and can be had by walking to the wine store while the tart cools.


10 Wines with Bottle Age


Pissaladière, Provencal Onion Tart

Serves 6

This recipe is adapted from Lulu’s Provencal Table, by Richard Olney. Instead of using whole anchovies as the original recipe suggests, here they are finely chopped and cooked in olive oil, then drizzled over the onion mixture.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • Salt
  • 10 tablespoons cold butter, diced
  • About 4 tablespoons of cold water
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds of sweet onions, finely sliced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 anchovy fillets, chopped fine
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) niçois olives

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter, and crumble the flour and butter together, lightly and rapidly, picking up portions and rubbing loosely between thumb and fingertips. Above all don’t overwork the pastry. Gather it together with a fork and a little cold water, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling it out.

Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large earthenware poêlon or heavy sauté pan, add the onions and salt and cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for an hour or more, or until they are so soft as to form a semi-purée.  Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain absolutely uncolored. Season with pepper.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sauté pan over low heat. Add the chopped anchovies and cook, stirring occasionally until they dissolve into the oil. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured marble slab or other work surface, sprinkle over plenty of flour over the ball, and roll to a thickness of approximately 1/8 inch. Roll it up onto a rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Fold up the edges and crimp them, either with your thumb dipped repeatedly in flour, or with the tines of a fork. 

Spread the onion puree evenly over the pasty.  Press the olives into the purée, spacing them equally. Dribble the anchovy oil over the surface and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp.  Serve hot or tepid, cut into small wedges or squares with an aperitif, or in large wedges as the first course.

Sicily Between Two Moons

Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

The first time I visited Sicily was Christmas 2010. We stayed at a seaside villa at the foot of Mt. Etna surrounded by lemon orchards for a week that ended with a blue moon on New Year's Eve. My daughter was twenty months old and she wouldn’t walk. She’d only jump. She jumped through passport control and the Rome airport and for a seven days she jumped around the property's jasmine scented Arabic gardens. I think of that spot every time I taste an Etna Bianco, wines made from carricante, a white grape that has been growing on Etna for a millennium. The property was a visual tasting note, a snapshot of the citrus, slate and saline qualities that make the wine so refreshing and memorable. 

Jumping    

Jumping  

 

We could not visit any of the Etna vineyards on that trip. All were closed for the holidays. Instead, we explored the mountain itself. A local volcanologist led us up to the crater’s rim. It was like walking on the moon, but with a view of the Mediterranean coast. By the time we reached the top, the wind had picked up to twenty miles per hour, the path had narrowed to two feet across, and the gradation of the drop had drawn close to vertical, at which point I fell to my knees and became intimate with Etna's gravelly soil.

As much as any winemaker talk, the trek burnished our ardor for nerello mascalese, the dominant grape in Etna Rosso. Not because the earthy, fruity, structured wines contributed immense pleasure to our post-hike picnic, and several meals before and afterward, but because we had personally experienced the brutal conditions under which these remarkable and nuanced wines flourish. Upon returning home, knowledge of Etna Rosso was a great souvenir, a gift that kept on giving. Bottles of Benanti Etna Rosso that could be had for less than twenty dollars, and once opened evolved in the glass for hours, led to the discovery of the more esoteric wines of Frank Cornelissen, and others.  

Still, when it comes to viticulture, DOC Etna is an island unto itself. The grape varieties and conditions on the mountain are unique in Sicily. In fact, bottles of wine from Etna are the only Sicilian wines that are not required to say Sicilia on the label. Around the world, Etna is quite enough. To get a more global sense of island's wine, it is necessary to take a closer look at nero d'avola, the juicy black-skinned grape celebrated for its role in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, particularly by producers such as Arianna Occhipinti and COS, in which nero d'avola supplies the base notes while frappato contributes vivacity and floral aromas.   

Every grape variety has a spiritual home, think nebbiolo in Piedmont. For nero d'avola it is DOC Noto in Sicily's Siracusa province. Poised on gently sloping hills in the southernmost corner of the island, a stone’s throw from where the Ionian Sea merges with the Mediterranean, light bathes Noto’s vineyards. Once the ocean floor, the soil is fossil rich, nutrient poor and adept at retaining precious rainfall. Nero d’avola vines struggle to grow in these environs as much as the nerello mascalese vines struggle on Etna. The result is elegant and distinctive wines with dark fruit, sweet tannins and aromas of jasmine and bergamot. Alessio Planeta, a seventeenth generation Sicilian and the winemaker at his family's five wineries on the island, calls nero d’avola from Noto, “the most Burgundian of Sicilian wines.”

Noto vineyards at dusk 

Noto vineyards at dusk 

For all the majesty of the volcano, even on that first trip, my most vivid memory of Sicily remains the few hours we spent touring Siracusa. It wasn’t the Roman amphitheater or the rare Caravaggio tucked into a small chapel. It was the unmistakable quality of the light, and how looking out from the ancient city to the place where the seas merge, you could feel Sicily’s history as a crossroad of Greek, Roman, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic cultures. There was the sense of being somewhere both deeply European and indelibly connected to continents beyond the horizon. 

In the fall of 2015, I returned to Sicily to tour the Planeta's wineries in Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna and Capo di Milazzo. Once again, we started in Etna, where as a safeguard against lava flow the barrel room is outfitted with a tiny window and a telescope trained on the volcano. Once again, we drove two hours south to the province of Siracusa, this time to Noto. Once again, as I got out of the van I was overcome by the beauty of the light in that corner of the world. The glow at dusk made everything look as it were lit for an art film. I picked a ripe olive from a tree and put it in my mouth knowing it hadn’t been cured, yet thought it looked so plump and round, like a plum, it had to taste good. I was terribly wrong.  

In the winery, we tasted back vintages of Planeta's Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola. The wines were silky with flavors of black cherry and smoke, they had aromas of white flowers and tension in the backbone. Over dinner we tried a lovely and slightly more delicate example from the boutique producer Terra delle Sirene. Unfortunately, Noto wines can be difficult to find in the U.S., but tracking them down is worth the effort. Planeta and Gulfi are the two most widely distributed high-quality producers. There are also a number of smaller wineries that can be found at specialty wine shops, a favorite being the Savino Nero Sichilli.  

Modica in the Val di Noto

Modica in the Val di Noto

Wines are only one of Siracusa province's many draws. We stayed a day, but given the opportunity it is a region I could spend months exploring. The Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rebuilt after being razed by an earthquake in 1693, the majestic stone cities of Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Ispica represent the apotheosis of the late-Baroque architecture in Europe. 

Pastry chefs the world over covet Noto’s fresh almonds. In the heat of the summer, the almonds find their optimal expression at breakfast as locals begin their day with a cooling granita made from the prized nuts. The best granita comes from Caffé Sicilia on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Noto's historic town center.

Along the coast, the picturesque fishing village Marzamemi is home to the restaurant Taverna La Cialoma, where dishes made with local seafood embody the argument for simple preparations and the finest ingredients. If you prefer more artistry, Ragusa has six Micheline starred restaurants. 

The region is also celebrated for cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino commune. The recipe below for Penne with Pesto & Pachino Tomatoes was delicious and full of nostalgia for the summer months when taught to me by the cook at the Etna villa in the dead of winter using supermarket produce. It takes on an entirely new dimension in July and August when tomatoes and basil are fresh and plentiful.

And, of course, there is the lure of the coast....

Capo di Milazzo

Capo di Milazzo

We left Siracusa for Planeta's Vittoria winery, a historic walled property with mature trees and climbing bougainvillea located in the center of the island's southern coast, in a rundown area dominated by an energy plant and industrial agriculture. It was the harvest, and the winemaker Arianna Occhipinti joined us for a pizza dinner with her picking crew, a combination of artists and aspiring oenologists from across Europe who had moved in with her for the month because they admire her aesthetics and the purity of her work. As soon as she arrived, she took Alessio aside. She was worried about the rate of fermentation in the Occhipinti SP68, which was unusually slow. As they huddled, it was evident that the local winemaking community was collaborative and tight knit. After the pizza party, we tried to stay up to see the super blood moon. It seemed the perfect counterpoint to the blue moon I'd witnessed on New Year's Eve at the foot of Mt. Etna five years earlier. Moons remind us to be receptive, the special ones even more so. Both trips were far too brief, but the impressions gleaned had opened my eyes, my soul, to Sicily’s history and rhythms, the idea that it is many places and embodies a multitude of ideas and traditions, depending on where on the island you stand, and through whose prism you look. Most of all, it fostered a longing to return and a sense that once experienced, this is an island that stays with you in your bones. 


10 Wines Sicily


Penne with Pachino Tomatoes & Pesto

Serves six to eight as a first course

The bite of fresh pesto, the sweet tomatoes and the nuttiness of the grated cheese take on a creamy texture when emulsified by the heat of the penne.  Any high quality cherry tomato will be delicious in this recipe, but if you have access to Pachino cherry tomatoes, by all means use them.  

  • 2 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered 
  • 1 1/2 lb penne pasta
  • 1/2  medium white onion, grated
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed 
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1/2 tsp red (chili) pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup parmesan, grated
  • 1/4 cup pecorino, grated
  • 1/4 cup almonds, toasted and crushed

Place the quartered cherry tomatoes in a large mixing bowl.  Grate the onion and garlic over the tomatoes and gently toss. To make the pesto, quickly soak the basil leaves in cool water and pat dry with a paper towel.  In the bowl of the food processor with a sharp metal blade, combine the basil, pine nuts, black pepper, red pepper and salt along with half a cup of olive oil and half a cup of grated Parmesan. Pulse the mixture three to four seconds at a time to avoid blackening.  Scrape the edges of the bowl with a wooden spoon.  Add half remaining olive oil, pulse and repeat until you achieve a uniform creamy consistency.   Pour the pesto over the tomato mixture. Add the remaining Parmesan and Pecorino. Gently toss and let stand for thirty to sixty minutes. 

Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the penne. When the pasta is al dente, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon or pour it into a colander.  Place half the pesto in the bottom of a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the pasta and gently toss.  Add the rest of the pesto to the pot and once again, gently toss. Remove the pan from the heat.  Spoon the pasta onto a large shallow platter. Garnish with basil leaves and crushed almonds. Serve warm.

The Quiet Nobility of Chinon

The Quiet Nobility of Chinon

If wines had seasons, late autumn would be the time for Chinon. Earthy, juicy, tannic, brooding, and elegant with age, these wines taste of the moment following the harvest when the work of producing fruit is done and the vines are soaking in the last of the warm autumn sun before leaves fall, wood hardens, and sap descends to their roots.

The wines are one hundred percent cabernet franc, a thin-skinned, aromatic, black grape best known for its opulent star turn further south in Saint-Émilion, particularly in the hallowed cellars of Chateau Cheval Blanc (ten percent cabernet sauvignon is permitted in Chinon, but rarely included in the blend). Cabernet franc-based wines from Chinon may not be as overtly sumptuous as those from a Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, but the best examples can be equally noble, if quietly so.   

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Volnay & Pommard on the Holiday Table

Volnay & Pommard on the Holiday Table

Holiday meals, especially more intimate gatherings or holiday season dinner parties, offer a stage ripe for exploration of wines that may stretch the budget in other circumstances. The table is set. Someone, maybe you, is already cooking a multi-course seasonal meal. Instead of just pairing wines and foods, why not use the opportunity to take your guests on a journey? A couple of well-chosen bottles of Burgundy can certainly elevate a celebration.

Which brings me back to Volnay and Pommard. Perhaps no two communes illustrate terroir in Burgundy as clearly as these neighboring villages. Like Barbaresco and Barolo in Piedmont, they are unmistakably feminine and masculine expressions of the same grape variety, in this case pinot noir. Drive or bicycle south from Beaune on the Route des Grands Crus and you will arrive in Pommard, an appellation whose relatively low elevation, underground spring water, and sediment composed of a heavy mix of clay and iron yield wines of deep color, intensity and structure. These are appealing, powerful, ageworthy wines that will be especially attractive to fans of collectible cabernet sauvignon.

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Wine and Meditation

Wine and Meditation

What does it mean to know a fine wine? Too often we only see what we have been taught to perceive. We measure wines against established categories and personal prejudices about what defines quality. What would happen if instead of rushing to identify or critique, we put aside the reductive methods championed in most wine education classes and afforded wines the necessary time and attention to unfold and reveal themselves naturally. What if we began to value presence over mastery?

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Grenache Lovers, Meet Gigondas

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Mention Gigondas and devotees of this grenache-based wine from the Southern Rhône will wax poetic about the grandeur of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the dramatic limestone cliffs below which region’s vineyards are planted. They will go on about how Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s growing popularity has led to soaring prices and confide that Gigondas provides much of the interest of its famous neighbor, with perhaps a tad less finesse, for a much smaller investment. Once they’ve set the stage and given the sales pitch, hopefully they’ll open a bottle and offer you a glass.

Located in the hills on the eastern edge of the broad alluvial plain that tracks the Rhône River, Gigondas sits in the path of the blustery wind known as the mistral, making it a cool climate wine relative to its famously hot locale. At their best, Gigondas’ are more expressive and complex than their neighbors in the Côte du Rhône. Gigondas must be at least eighty percent grenache; this provides the wines with a rich base of red fruit and plum flavors. They must also be at least fifteen percent syrah and mourvèdre; these thick skinned varieties anchor grenanche’s overt fruitiness with savory aromatics, tannic structure and the capacity to age in oak.

Delicious, if rustic, in its youth, Gigondas begs for an exotically spiced lamb tagine or a hardy stew. Time is this wine’s friend. If you can forget about a bottle for a decade, its rough edges will soften and a sense of harmony between the flavors of fruit and earth will emerge. Wines from Domaine du Pesquier, Domaine du Cayron, Pierre Amadieu and Lavau are all good places to begin to explore this gem of a region in the Southern Rhône.

Denis Dubourdieu on Drinkability as an Essential Characteristic of Dry White Bordeaux

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Denis Dubourdieu is the leading authority on the white wines of Bordeaux. Beyond being the Director of General Oenology at the University of Bordeaux, he manages four family estates, including Doisy-Daëne and Clos Floridéne, and consults with wineries such as Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Here, he guides us through Bordeaux’s distinctive white wines.

Sophie Menin: What are the hallmarks of a great dry white Bordeaux?

Denis Dubourdieu:  Drinkability is the most important quality of a Bordeaux Blanc. They should be fresh and fruity without too much alcohol. A good one will quench your thirst.

SM: What distinguishes the region’s sauvignon blanc and sémillon, the two grapes that make up most white Bordeaux?

DD: Our sauvignon blanc is a wine of the Atlantic coast. It is more delicate than the intensely grassy and tropical wines you find in New Zealand and less flinty than sauvignon blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. At its best, it exhibits flavors of grapefruit and white peach.

Bordeaux is at the northern limit of where sémillon can be cultivated and it does very well here. It is our chardonnay. The finest examples are grown on limestone. Bordeaux wines made from sémillon smell of hazelnut, almonds and brioche. After a few years, they develop aromas of fresh apricot or orange. 

SM: How has dry white Bordeaux changed since you started making wine?

DD: Bordeaux Blanc as we know it did not exist thirty years ago. Our dry white wines used to smell like oxidized sweet wines. Things started to change in the mid nineteen eighties when I was directing white wine research in the enology department of the University of Bordeaux and we began to understand which molecules were involved in creating the characteristic aromas of sauvignon blanc and the role of the yeast in protecting wines from oxidation.

When we applied this knowledge to Bordeaux’s two main white grape varieties, sauvignon blanc and sémillon, we discovered their fruity taste and how well they complement each other in a dry white blend.

SM: Could you describe the sweet white Bordeaux known as Sauternes for us?

DD: Sauternes caresses the mouth. There is a quality of softness. You don’t sense any corners. No matter how long the wine has aged, you always encounter aromas of fresh fruit, not just jam and honey. Last month I opened a bottle of our 1934 Doisy-Daëne, a sweet white made next door to Sauternes in the commune of Barsac. It was a complex bomb of orange, smoke, chocolate, ginger and apricot.

SM: When do you drink Sauternes? 

DD: I like young Sauternes as an aperitif and old Sauternes at the end of the meal. 

 

What is a "Non-Dosage" or "Brut Nature" Champagne?

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The terms “non-dosage” or “brut nature” on a bottle of Champagne may mean that no sugar has been sugar added at the end, but don’t be fooled, these are far from the sparkling equivalent of a SkinnyGirl drink. They are more akin to the feat of appearing gorgeous on camera without makeup. Just as it takes a great beauty to successfully forego a little foundation before submitting to the camera’s lens, it takes a truly exceptional base wine to make a compelling “non-dosage” or “brut nature” Champagne.

To understand why this is so, it helps to review the methode traditional used in Champagne production. Traditionally, Champagne is made by bottling a base wine made of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, then adding a liqueur de tirage (wine mixed with sugar and yeasts) to initiate a second, in-bottle fermentation, which gives carbon dioxide off as a by-product, lending the wine its distinctive effervescence. 

The wine is then aged in bottle for at least fifteen months. At the end of the aging process, the sediment from the second fermentation is coaxed into the neck of the bottle by a process called riddling. The neck is then flash frozen and its contents are pulled out like a stopper. Finally, the dosage (wine mixed with cane sugar) is traditionally added before the bottle is re-corked.

The dosage is like the pat of butter or splash of sherry added to a sauce or a soup before serving. It rounds out the flavors and balances the component parts. For a winemaker, forgoing the dosage means giving up their chance to make small corrections. That’s why some wine lovers have dubbed these wines “naked Champagnes.” 

A renewed focus on farming, the growing importance of grower Champagnes, a wider understanding of Champagne as wine, the preference for drier wines, and global warming have all played a roll in the growing importance of the “non-dosage” or “brut nature” category. If you have not yet tried one, the Ayala Brut Nature, Pol Roger Pure, Benoît Lahaye Brut Nature, or any of bottle from George Laval or Tarlant are an all excellent places to begin to explore Champagne stripped down to its essence.

 

How a Sommelier Helps

As the Gramercy Tavern Beverage Director, Juliette Pope manages every aspect of the restaurant’s wine program from selecting wines, to meeting budgets to the logistics of cellaring, all with an eye toward delighting their eclectic clientele. She chooses wines for a busy casual tavern, a more formal main dining room, locals who frequent the restaurant three times a week and tourists with no fine dining experience. Juliette knows how a list full of unfamiliar wines can make guests anxious, since Gramercy Tavern never pours your typical pinot grigio by the glass.  Here she offers advice on how to make your interaction with a sommelier a success.

SM:  When should you ask for the help of a sommelier?

JP:  Any time you don’t see a bottle that rings a bell or fits your budget, ask for help. If the only sauvignon blanc by the bottle is $100 and you want to spend $50, you need to talk to somebody.

SM:  How can a sommelier help you?

JP:  A sommelier can direct you to a wine that is stylistically up your alley, even if it is unfamiliar. For example, I find people who typically drink sauvignon blanc to be good candidates for grüner veltliner from Austria. The wine may sound Germanic and unlike anything they are used to drinking, but it often lines up well with their tastes and budgets.

SM:  What is the point of tasting a wine before it is poured?

JP:  Technically, it is to see if the wine is flawed, but for the restaurant guest, the point of tasting a wine before it is poured is to see if you like it. Our crew is trained to taste each bottle before it goes out to ensure flawed wines don’t reach our customers. If you don’t like the wine, you can send it back. We believe this is an important part of service, because we don’t want people to sit at a meal with a bottle they are not going to enjoy.

SM:  Do you have any advice for getting the most out of your interaction with a sommelier?

JP:  Don’t be shy about budget. The best way to indicate your budget is to use your finger to point to a price on the wine list and say, “I am looking for something along these lines.” The number doesn’t get verbalized, but the sommelier knows where to take you based on your price requirements and the style of wine you described enjoying.

The Halmarks of a Classic Rosé de Provence

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Rosé de Provence is the kind of wine that fulfills a longing for a particular time and place. Its pale salmon hue, fresh fruit aroma and tumbling minerality evoke seaside lunches and sunset aperitifs. Typically made from grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre, the classic style is light and refreshingly dry. When the weather begins to warm, Americans have an insatiable appetite for Rosé de Provence. For eight consecutive years this bottled essence of Southern France has experienced double-digit sales growth here. As such, today we have access to more rosés from a greater variety of Provençal producers than ever before.

Achieving the elegant simplicity of a well-crafted rosé requires gentle handling of mature fruit. Corners cut in the vineyard lead to thin wines with an aftertaste that can be green or medicinal, wines that are the bad oysters of summer drinks. Good rosés should be light-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and taste of white flowers, seashells and just-picked berries. A few bottles that fulfill this tall order are Château de Pourcieux,  Domaine de Saint-Ser, Château la Calisse, AIX and Domaine de l'’Abbeye Clos Beylesse.   

Rosé de Provence is not a wine to be sipped slowly and pondered. It is meant to disappear quickly, by the magnum if possible, and its charming way of capturing the spirit of Mediterranean idyll should be delivered to the consumer without emptying their wallet.

Salcheto’s Remarkable Winery

Inspired to improve his wines while reducing energy consumption, Michele Manelli, the winemaker at Salcheto in Montepulciano, Italy, has built a remarkable winery that is completely off the grid.

Nestled into the side of a hill with a vertical garden planted on its façade to absorb the sun, the winery is as beautiful as it is functional. The roof doubles as a piazza and is equipped with an automated sprinkler system. When the piazza is wet, the sun’s energy vaporizes the water and cools the winery through a simple (yet ingenious) thermodynamic process. The facility is heated by burning clippings and other materials in the local landscape. Inside, there are no light bulbs. Natural light is delivered through long reflective tubes and mirrors. To pump over, stainless steel vats harness the power of CO2 released during fermentation process. Electricity is provided through solar panels. In terms of metrics, the net result is that Salcheto’s winery uses 54% less energy than a conventional facility. 

At this state-of-the-art winery, Manelli makes Obvius a Rosso di Montepulciano he describes as being made “exclusively from grapes.” For Manelli, this means no added sulfites, cultured yeasts, oak barrels or even electricity are used in the winemaking process. The recipe calls for perfectly intact sangiovese grapes, ambient yeasts and vinification in his stainless steel vats designed to harness CO2 to power the mechanism for pumping over. The wines are aged and bottled in an oxygen free environment. The result is a fresh juicy wine with a complex inner core, and a terrific value at $19 a bottle. 

Stephen Carrier on Harmony in Mature Red Bordeaux

Few people understand what distinguishes the red wines of Bordeaux from their New World counterparts better than Stephen Carrier, the winemaker at Château de Fieuzal in Pessac-Léognan. The son of grape growers from Champagne, Stephen began his career as the winemaker for Newton Vineyard in the Napa Valley before honing his skills crafting Bordeaux blends at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. Here he shares his passion for mature red Bordeaux.

Sophie Menin:  What makes for a great red Bordeaux?

Stephen Carrier:  In one word? Time.

SM:  We’re surprised you didn’t say vintage or terroir.

SC:  Bordeaux has sixty appellations each with a distinctive terroir. Every year the potential exists for great wines to come from the Medoc where the presence of clay gives the wines the potential to be bold and lush, or the exacting gravelly soils of Pessac-Léognan, or the merlot based wines of St-Émilion and Pomerol. But in all these regions, the young and old wines taste very different.

SM:  How so?

SC: Young Bordeaux is like a bright child in need of a good education. It is alive with aromas of fresh fruit and spice. If you hold your nose to the glass, you will experience the heady scents of blackberries, red currants, tobacco and vanilla. I assure you that you will want to drink this wine, but I don’t recommend it. All you will taste are the building blocks of a wine that has not yet reached its potential. A wave of fruit will be followed by the drying sensation of tannins on your tongue and gums. 

SM:  What changes over time?

SC:  With time the fruit flavor grows deeper, the tannins become silky and aromas of spice and earth begin to dominate the wine’s perfume. This experience of depth, harmony and balance is what great Bordeaux is all about. Depending on the vintage, this transformation can happen after five, ten or twenty years in the bottle. 

Many wines go through an intermediate stage when the tannins have softened and integrated into a wine that still possesses the expressive bloom of fresh fruit. I like these wines very much as well.

SM:  What do you drink when you are waiting for the wines to mature?

SC:   In France we drink the less celebrated vintages while we are waiting for the great ones to come around. Many of the less celebrated years produce wines with more delicate fruit. These wines are less tannic and mature earlier. Right now, the 2007s are very good!

The Vogue for Amphorae

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Winemakers and fashion designers share the habit of combing styles and techniques from the past with an eye toward improving their current works. For designers it might be a skirt length, stitch or fabric. These days, for winemakers, it is often the use of clay vessels called amphorae.

Amphorae are ceramic vessels that were used by the ancient Greeks for the storage and transport of wine, as well as other liquids and dry goods. Typically, they have a large oval body, a narrow cylinder-shaped neck, two handles and a pointed base. The average height of amphorae is eighteen inches, but they could be as tall as five feet.

What attracts winemakers to amphorae? In a word: purity. Like steel, clay is flavor neutral, and like oak, it allows for the beneficial passage of tiny amounts of oxygen. Winemakers who swear by the use of amphorae believe it expresses the unique characteristics of the grapes without adulteration.

Amphorae wines tend to be darker and cloudier than their counterparts made in steel or oak. The best have the same kind of inner complexity you expect of a deep satisfying broth. They are popular with the natural wine movement because the types of corrections that happen in a modern cellar are not possible with these wines. Their deliciousness depends entirely upon impeccable practices in the vineyard.

The use of amphorae in winemaking dates back 6,000 years to the Republic of Georgia where their contemporary, distinctive orange-colored wines are still made in beeswax-lined, terra-cotta amphorae, called quervi. The ceramic containers are buried up to their necks in the earth while the wines macerate and ferment.

If you subscribe to the notion that everything old is new again, we recommend giving amphorae wines a try. Some notable producers are Elisabetta Foradori in Alto Adige, Italy; Josko Gravner in Fruili, Italy; Movia in Slovenia; C.O.S. and Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Italy; and Beckham Estate in Oregon, where the winemaker is a ceramics instructor who makes his own vessels. 

Bud Burst in Santorini

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Bud burst comes to Santorini, a Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea, in the early spring as it does in most of the northern hemisphere, but it is unlike bud burst anywhere else on earth. With the use of kouloura pruning, new shoots are woven into basket shaped vines, which protect delicate young fruit from sand blowing in punishing wind and the burning effect of the island sun on black lava.

Vineyards have been continuously cultivated in this inhospitable environment for three thousands years. This is in no small part due to the resilience of assyrtiko, the island’s high-quality indigenous grape variety. Assyrtiko thrives in the mix of pumice stone and lava rock that have blanketed Santorini since it was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1650 BC. The grapes are small and densely flavored, much like the prized white eggplants, cherry tomatoes, capers and yellow fava beans grown on the island.

A singular feature of assyrtiko is that approximately every seventy-five years vines are pruned to the root and allowed to regrow. A new vine could spur from a root system that is up to five hundred years old. The ancient roots burrow deep in the soil, making it possible for assyrtiko to thrive in an environment with scarce water.

Assyrtiko is prized for its capacity to retain high acidity and sugar levels simultaneously. Even in a hot arid climate, it yields fresh citrus and mineral driven wines capable of maturing in the cellar. It is the kind of muscular white wine that can be enjoyed with grilled lamb as easily as it could with fresh fish. Assyrtiko from Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia Thalassitis are among the finest examples available in the U.S., and an ideal place to begin exploring the wines of Santorini short of a vacation in Greece.

Summer Reds

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When we talk about white wines for summers, we implicitly understand the reference. Summer whites are bright, light, thirst quenching wines that are eminently drinkable. Sancerre ,Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine and Albariño immediately come to mind. Summer reds are more difficult to define. We know we are not breaking out a pensive vintage Bordeaux for the family barbeque or uncorking a luscious California cabernet sauvignon with a bowl of chilled asparagus soup, but it is it possible to reduce the entire universe of reds to a simple rule of thumb for the summer months?

One helpful idea is to think about the climate of the wine’s region of origin. Warm climate reds tend to be juicy with plenty of body and just enough acidity to be mouthwatering. Think nero d’avola from Sicily, malbec from Mendoza, or grenache from the southern Rhone Valley. These intensely flavorful wines will maintain their structure in the face of bold, smoky, spicy summer fare. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the cool climate reds, what we call bistro wines, since they show so well served lightly chilled by the carafe. At their best, cool climate reds are youthful and delicious, tasting of fresh berries often with floral or mineral notes. They won’t overwhelm a fresh salad niçoise, spring pea soup or chicken paillard. Some very fine examples can be found in the Loire Valley, notably the cabernet franc from Chinon and Saumur. Other sources worth seeking out are pinot noirs from Alsace and Central Otago. 

The New California Wine

In 2010, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné was writing a short article for Saveur when his editor called him with a problem. She had a slew of stories about California wine that were not fitting together and needed an overarching narrative to connect them. She gave him a week to develop and write the piece. After seven days with little sleep, it was clear that what had once seemed like a disparate movement of iconoclastic producers had reached a critical mass and a new kind of California wine had emerged. The seismic shift begged for more space than a special edition of a magazine could offer, thus his indispensable volume The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. 

Sophie Menin:  What are the New California Wines? 

Jon Bonné:  These wines represent the continuity of the state’s long wine growing history, what made people fall in love with California a generation ago and where it is going. They are wines made in a style that is relevant to wines around the world, wines that have a sense of place and are meant to be part of a gastronomic experience. They often use varieties other than the northern European grapes to which we’ve grown accustom and are not trapped in a bigger is better arms race. 

SM:  Yet not all the wine and winemakers discussed in the book are new. 

JB:  The book’s theme may be the new generation of winemakers, but it was important for it not to be about just the young and hip. Decades ago, winemakers such as Paul Draper, Cathy Corison and Ted Lemon (respectively of Ridge, Corison and Littorai) chose to stick with values they deemed important and pursued a radically different set of questions as others took an easier path. Their work wasn’t simply to make great wine, but to push ahead an industry that was really in its infancy. 

SM:  What have you discovered about where varietals are doing well? 

JB:  Grenache and grenache blanc are going to be superstars. Red Grenache grows beautifully in Santa Barbara, Santa Rita and the high dessert. The Sierra Foothills are a largely untapped resource for native Rhone varieties, especially the whites. Ron Mansfield is the great pioneer of those grapes up in mountains. 

SM:  Why is table wine such a dilemma in California? 

JB:  For all the quirky things people are doing, the core of the industry is not paying attention to simpler wines so table wine is left to those who make wine as an industrial product. The new winemakers seem to understand that even if you make great wine, you still have a responsibility to make a simpler wine as well. Steve Matthiasson is an example of someone who is pushing forward on this issue. With the Tendu project he is making aggressively priced compelling wines in liter bottles with crown caps. The white is mostly vermentino from Yolo County and he just released a red made from aglianico. 

SM:   Has it been helpful to not be a California native when reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle? 

Ten years ago, when I began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, coming from New York seemed like a liability. It was easy for some in the industry to dismiss me as a dude from New York who says wine should be made in a European style. But more relevant than being from New York was that I had just spent five years writing about wine in in Washington State where it was natural to meet talented winemakers without big money behind them. Washington State winemakers constantly have to prove themselves. It gave me an innate understanding of the type of winemakers covered in this book.

What to Drink with a Dish that is Intriguing, Sophisticated, and Bitter....

In the introduction to Jennifer McLagan’s fascinating new book, Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor with Recipes, the author imagines her subject through the lens of the Japanese word for bitter tanginess, shibui.

First she quotes a Kinfolk Magazine article that explains, “When people are described as shibui, the image is of a silver-haired man in a tailored suit, with a hint of bad-boy aura about him.” Then she says, “So bitter is a cultured, intriguing, and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or dine with?”

Regardless of whether or not you care to break bread with a shibui gent, the question of what to drink when enjoying a dish that is intriguing, sophisticated, and bitter is not at all obvious. Bitter comes in many different guises: grapefruit, olives, artichokes, kale, couscous, and cocoa are all bitter, but taste very different.

The challenge is finding wines that bringing a sense of balance and harmony to a particular dish. Here are a few examples:

The fresh apple and mineral flavors in a young Austrian grüner veltliner like the 2012 Sohm & Kracher go beautifully with white asparagus or bitter citrus, such as Seville oranges.

The hint of sweetness and mouthwatering acidity in a German riesling such as the 2013 Donnhoff Estate rounds out the bitterness in Brussels sprouts and brightens the flavors of many of its tastiest roasting partners, for instance bacon and chestnuts.

The mix of dark berries and woodsy notes in a Rosso di Montalcino like the Il Poggione showcase the smoky bitterness of grilled radicchio drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.

Even a luscious fruit-forward Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon such as the Chateau Montelena has a touch of bitterness at its core, making it the perfect foil for the most decadent of bitter desserts, molten dark chocolate. 

Rosé Champagne

   

When Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award winning wine director wrote the wine notes for Charlie Trotter’s Meat and Game, her biggest takeaway from the many weeks of sampling bottles in Trotter’s enviable cellar was this: the perfect wine for a dish is often completely the opposite of what you think it should be! Rosé Champagne and dry aged steak is a great example of this maxim. 

Traditionally, Champagne is a white sparkling wine made by bottling a base wine made of white grapes (chardonnay) and two red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) that are pressed gently so that no color is extracted from their skins, then adding a liqueur de tirage, wine mixed with sugar and yeast. The liqueur de tirage initiates a second in-bottle fermentation resulting in Champagne’s distinctive effervescence. 

Of course, there are variations on the theme, a Champagne labeled blanc de blancs will be one hundred percent chardonnay. A Champagne labeled blanc de noirs will be entirely pinot noir and pinot meunier, though it will still be a white sparking wine. Then there are the rosés. 

Rosé Champagnes are generally made by adding a small amount of red wine to the base. Their colors can range from delicate salmon to ballerina slipper to hot pink, depending on how much red wine is present. When a rosé is also a blanc de noirs, its hue is achieved by letting the base wine absorb color from the dark skins until it turns pink. But the wine is drained off the skins or “bled” before the color grows too deep. Both methods yield Champagnes with more structure, intensity and earthy flavors than the traditional blends. These qualities along with Champagne’s naturally high acidity make rosé Champagne a terrific foil for rich meats. 

When pairing a rosé Champagne with a dry aged steak, Belinda recommends looking for houses whose rosés demonstrate development and richness over fresh fruit. Veuve Clicquot was the first house to commercially export rosé Champagne and still makes a very successful style that works with a savory steak cut. Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Rosé and Gatinois Brut Rosé are two of her other favorites for a meat centered feast. 

There are certainly several styles that pair beautifully with a dry aged steak!