Some weeks back I made a decision: I would buy no new bottles of liquor for as long as possible. My reason was not anxiety about my weight or a sudden conversion to teetotalism. No, I had simply grown tired of looking at the dozens upon dozens of bottles lining the counter and cupboards of my man cave. Nearly all of which had arrived as samples sent by drinks companies and their public relations firms.
I had intended to clear them out by throwing a free booze party for friends: show up with a bag backpack, taste anything you want, and walk out. I did this once about 15 years ago in Brooklyn, and I’ll never forget hearing the clanking of bottles departing my railroad apartment and into the Brooklyn night. And what fun we had.
That was in my younger freer days, and now busy-ness kept me from arranging a sequel saturnalia. Might I pour them down the drain? That would be the most efficient solution. Dumping the product of nature and man, however, felt like vandalism—a sin of sorts.
What comes to mind when one reads the word, “Sardinia”? Sardines? That island where Napoleon was exiled? (Actually, he cooled his heels in Elba.) Anything?
The difficulty of mentally associating much of anything with Sardinia is understandable—it’s a distant and difficult to characterize place. Officially a province of Italy, Sardinia is the second island in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian constitution gives Sardinian considerable liberty to run its own affairs.
Less than 1.7 million people live on its 9,300 square miles, scattered in cities and small towns. Sardinia’s weather is sometimes tropical; palm and olive trees grow there, and turbulent storms blow in from the sea. But snow also falls in the highlands. Film stars sometimes holiday on Sardinia’s beaches, but the island also is spotted with a slew of NATO bases and installations, to the ire of some locals.
The cultural is similarly hard to peg for outsiders. Italian is the official language and is widely spoken, but there is a native Sardinian language which is more Latin-esque, and comes in varying dialects. Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, and various Africans all have landed on the island over the centuries. Unlike neighboring nations, Sardinia is more matriarchal than patriarchal. Women tend to be more educated than men, but the residential literacy rate is nearly 100 percent.
One unsurprising fact about Sardinia is that it, like its continental neighbors, makes wine. Lots of it.
Yet, Sardinian wine can be difficult to find in the United States. That is because much of the wine made in Sardinia is sold there or in Europe. Palm Bay International of Port Washington, New York imports Sella & Mosca wines. And America’s strong dollar might well induce more bottles to our shores. Which would be a good thing, since the wines are good and the atypical grapes give the palate something new.
So, suffice to say that when I recently had the chance to sample Sardinian wine I had no idea what to expect. The omnipresent Cabernet Sauvignon grows there, but most of the wines came from grapes —Vermentino, Torbato, Carignano, Cannonau — that were at best vaguely familiar.
The eight wines…. Was it eight? Senator I cannot recall…. Anyhoo, the eight wines I tasted were produced by Sella & Mosca, Sardinia’s largest winery, which was founded a century ago. And I like everyone of them.
The two whites, La Cala Vermentino ($14) and Terre Bianche Torbato ($21) , were any interesting case in contrasts. La Cala has apricot and floral notes and was creamy in the mouth. Terre Bianche tasted of orange peel, apples, and was crisp. The latter was especially tasty with briny oysters.
The Sella & Mosca reds were very different from the fruit bombs one tends to find on American store shelves. A three-year old Terre Rare Carignano ($15) was a little dry, and showed blackberry and earth notes. Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC was wonderfully musty—it was the taste equivalent of stepping into an old cellar where mushrooms were growing. Giovanni Pina, Sella & Mosca’s winemaker, outdid himself with Tanca Farra Alghero DOC 2011. This $27 bottle of wine blew me away as it balanced the rich fruit flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon against the earthy and leathery notes from the Cannonau grapes.
Finally, the high-end ($65 and up) Marchese di Villamarina DOC (2010, 2009, and 1999) offered a Sardinian take on Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, what one got was not the uber-tannic, fruit-forward cab model. Rather, the Marchese wines all showed modest fruit and interesting baking spices and tobacco notes. I was impressed, but I’m not the only one. Critics have deemed Marchese vintages excellent.
The next time you are perusing the drinks aisles or at a restaurant, look for one of these wines. I think you too will be impressed.
I admit it—I keep a box of Pinot Grigio in the fridge. I also have various Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Pinot Noirs on my wine rack. These are my House wines, the wines I sip (or gulp) after a day at the office while I corral my children to the dinner table.
Most of these wines I pick up at the grocery store on Saturday mornings, when I am loading up the cart with diapers, peanut butter, bananas, and the other staples of life. From month to month, the wine brands I buy change, but the grapes frequently remain the same. This is not unusual—most wine consumers tend to settle on brands and grapes. “Give me the Chardonnay” is one of the most uttered sentences in modern America.
It’s cliche but true—variety is the spice of life, and these days there is no excuse for mindless repetition. Try a different grape. The market offers an incredible array of wine options at prices that hedge risk. Pasqua Sangiovese runs $10, and is a long way from the dreck that used to come in the straw basket clad bottles. It noses of blackberry, vanilla, and leather, and it paired well with bacon pizza.Continue reading “Got the Wine Blahs? Try Another Grape”→
In their excellent (no joke—it’s the best place to start if you are just learning and also a tremendous reference) Wine for Dummies, the married Mary Ewing-Mulligan (a Master of Wine—one of only 322 in the world, it’s like Ph.D. on top of a Ph.D.) and Ed McCarthy tell this story:
“Several years ago, we were enjoying one of our favorite red wines, an Italian Barbera, in the Alps. It was a perfect summer day in the mountains—crisp, clear, and cool. The wine was also perfect … with our salami, bread, and cheese. A couple of days later, we had the very same wine at the seashore, on a cloudy, humid, heavy-pressure day. The wine was heavy, flat, and lifeless. What had happened to our wonderful mountain wine?”
This story was on my mind as I recently drank, and reviled, a 2013 Caves du Vin Blanc de Morgex de la Salle (CVBMS) “Vini Estremi” Dalle Valle d’Aosta ($20, Free Run Wines, LLC, importer). The source, as usual, was Rimmerman. Concerning the 2012, which Rimmerman claimed was “almost impossible to tell … apart,” Antonio Galloni (far more reliable than Rimmerman, which is why he was quoted) gave 90 points and said, “Slate, crushed rocks, lime, grapefruit and white flowers burst from the glass in an energetic, chiseled wine loaded with class and personality. Hints of white truffle and ash linger on the finish.”
That’s a flavor profile right in my wheelhouse, but no … and but why?
Minerality, yes, some grapefruit and white flowers (white flowers?), possibly. But no bursting, let alone class, personality, or lingering. If you have been here before, Gentle Reader, you know that I do not normally discuss wine in terms of body. I am not sure why—perhaps because it is so purely value-neutral as opposed to “structure” or “balance”—both light-bodied and full-bodied wines can be excellent. But I have rarely tasted wine purporting to be of any quality with less body than this Vini Estremi. It was wine-related water. The bubbles rose to the top of the glass in a white scum.
As a brief aside, this illuminates the critical Rimmermanian weakness as a purveyor. He is so valorizing of clarity, purity, and terroir—Old World to a fault—that the drinking experience can be lost. You have to know how to read him, and above all do not buy Bordeaux. Esoteric American blends, bubbles, Australia, yes.
But the Vini Estremi: Could the problem have been this wine’s unusual circumstances of creation? Rimmerman again: “[I]t’s the only version of pre-phylloxera … wine you will ever taste.” This is worth stopping for: At the end of the 1800s, nearly all of Europe’s Vitis vinifera (i.e., wine as we know it) vines were destroyed by the minute insect Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, commonly known as phylloxera (superfamily Phylloxeroidea, family Phylloxeridae). Virtually the entire continent was only saved by grafting vines from Texas (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Europe) onto the survivors. If Rimmerman is to be believed, the wines of CVBMS are the rare exception, the only ones that I know of. Could this be the cause?
Doubtful, for in that same offer (April 22, 2014), I also purchased CVBMS’s La Piagne ($22), bottles of which I consumed at a birthday party this winter over spicy Korean at the legendary Da Rae Jung in Lincoln Square, Chicago (the extra cool factor with the La Piagne is the cork, which is not a cork at all but a glass stopper) and it was near perfect. But if not the pre-phylloxera vines then what?
We drank the Estremi with pan-seared salmon and miso soup—an inspired food pair. However, I did not get home until 30 minutes before we retired to the porch with our plates—not enough time for a normal chill so I put it in the freezer. Maybe that had something to do with the wine’s failure, except that it’s a common technique and thus doubtful. I’m grasping at straws here.
But. It has been a strange, bad summer on the shores of Lake Michigan, cold and in the 2015 American way, wet. No kind of payoff for the supra-miserable winter, and enough to make one think about recalling a mayor. The humidity as we poured our glasses approached 90% in the aftermath of and prelude to rain. More rain. So we think of Ewing-Mulligan and McCarthy.
And we must remember that, like all of us, a bottle of wine is a living thing, and as subject to the seasons and tides, mood disorders, and the unreasonable voices of critics who will not be silenced. (Rating: Not good)
Like most serious wine guys, I poo poo “red in winter, white summer” to the exact same extent that I poo poo “red with beef, white with fish.” Like most things, it is a matter of context. There is nothing intrinsic to our path around the sun or even the temperature that demands one wine over others. Rather, there are contexts partially intrinsic to our equinoctial and solstitial relationships that inform and delimit our wine choices. I present here for your drinking pleasure three of those common to summer, with concomitant recommendations:
At a Barbecue: Icardi Barbera d’Asti, 2011
Jay McInerney famously recommends Barbera for pizza, which while I can’t get behind it demonstrates a certain largeness of thinking. (I don’t see what’s wrong with Chianti, as college seniors have been proven over two straw-thatched generations.) His reasoning is that the acidity of the tomato sauce presents a singular problem in combination with the cheese and (god willing) sausage. The first demands a hero acid to stand up in kind to the bully, a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc, both of which are inadequate to the fatty umami of the other components. Thus the dilemma.
Enter the logic of Barbera. Unusual for a red, its structure is supplied by high acid and wispy tannins. McInerney’s logic of pizza therefore applies equally to the barbecue, where like as not we are presented with meats drenched in tomato bases of varying sweetness and vinegar. Barbera is to a summer barbecue to what Beaujolais is to Thanksgiving, and complements without complication. The 2011 Icardi Barbera d’Asti I consumed recently was red almost to purple and yeasty on the nose with sharp berries. It required no decant and displayed a generosity I find mostly absent from Italian reds, which tend toward the emotional flintiness of those who came of age in the 1930s. Mouth-watering acid in the mid-palate with practically no tannins, the wine changed not at all in the glass save for a fruity broadening to encompass a more crowd-pleasing strawberry. The barbecue was half over, but the whole bottle was gone. Imported by Vinifera Imports. Price: $16. (Rating: Very Good)
In the Pool or at the Beach: Grüner Veltliner
In the U.S. wine market the Austrians are cursed. Aside from Riesling, which is more associated with Germany, their two great wines are Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner. (The Teutons aren’t much for reds as we know them; try a German Pinot sometime and you’ll see what I mean.) Despite the Germanic origins of English, both present significant pronunciative difficulties for Americans. With it strange spiciness Gewürztraminer is difficult on the palate, too, and tends to induce love-hate reactions. Not so Grüner Veltliner, an elegant wine which is exported almost exclusively from Austria and deserves a wider audience.
Don’t make the mistake I did with a recent bottle of 2011 Lust & Laune, which was to chill it to 43 degrees. (If you don’t have a wine chiller–and it’s a wine toy worth having if there’s any wish to rise above dilettante–this is all day in a refrigerator.) It weakened the acid and brought out some unpleasant petroleum notes; 49 would have been more appropriate. As the wine warmed in the glass, however, it took on the restrained qualities of a Hapsburg at court, neither overly acidic nor sweet, refined grass aromatics and mild spice in an admirably unitary package. A paradigmatic Grüner is perhaps a bit weightier, but this was still an excellent everyday summer white, especially with the waves lapping in the background. Imported by: Magellan Wine Imports. Price: $13. (Rating: Good)
6:37pm On a Tuesday, After Work on the Porch, Top Two Buttons Undone, and a Slight Sweat: NV Casal Garcia Vinho Verde
My shorthand recommendation for Vinho Verde is “wine soda,” and to drink it is to indulge the pleasureful id, frustrate language, and forestall analysis. I have never known a person who tried Vinho Verde and was not delighted. As the reputation of Prosecco rightfully ascends, do not forget the Portuguese entry in the carbonation sweepstakes. It will never find an easy home at a fancy banquet, but thank the maker we spend little of our lives at fancy banquets. And it is cheap.
Literally “green wine,” Vinho Verde is the name of the region in the far north of Portugal, not the grape, and “green” refers to its age rather than its color for the wine is meant to be drunk young. In color, it is generally white or rose–the reds are hard to find (I have never had one). The NV Casal Garcia I consumed recently was a rose, the finest example of the species I have encountered and widely available. The nose is of light strawberry, the kind of soft smell that carries a long way on a slight breeze. At first taste there is a slight pungency from the skins that produce the beautiful deep pink, but this gives way to the acid that is as Newt Gingrich claims that government should be, limited but strong. (A white Vinho Verde is likely to be more LBJ-ish in its acid.) The appeal of the wine in the mouth is not in its flavor but in the feeling it inspires, the very definition of cliches of crispness and refreshment. At 10.5% ABV it is everything in moderation, but not the Brahmin moderation of a Grüner. Rather, it is the uncomplicated lounging of the slacker, a loose restraint that is never tight and always a good time, at least in moderation. Imported by: Maverick Wine Co. Price: $8. (Rating: Excellent)