April 2008

“A good drinker of Lambrusco is not only a proud, warm and generous man, but he is above all free.” — Curzio Malaparte

lambrusco grape

I can’t be sure exactly what Signore Malaparte meant when he said this, but I think this quote says a lot about what it means to be a wine drinker today.  Lambrusco, a bubbly dry red wine made from one of several varieties of the lambrusco grape and served chilled, is a difficult wine for some to embrace. First of all, it challenges our notion that wine is either white or red (or maybe pink), and poses a threat to those who for some reason align themselves with one or the other.  My wine director friends tell me chilling stories about customers who order a dozen oysters and then ask, “What Cab would you recommend?”  After offering a suitable white wine as an alternative, they are looked at askance and politely brushed off. Similarly, some people only drink “Chard” or “Pinot” (shortspeak for Grigio, not Noir), and find it unfeminine to drink red wine. A chilled sparkling red wine doesn’t fit into any simple category, but it is one of the most delightful drinks in the world.

Another obstacle we have between us and Lambrusco, is that it is viewed as an unserious wine, not worthy of admiration. Part of the problem is that Riunite, a cheap, sweet, industrial version of what Emilia-Romagna farmers had been making for centuries, was extremely popular in the U.S. during the nineteen-seventies and eighties. Its reputation was on par with that of Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers — in other words, extremely cool back then and extremely uncool now. 

Real versions of Lambrusco, like the Barbolini that I wrote about last week, are quite worthy of admiration, although they are unlikely to win any awards in the mainstream wine media. They’ll never be collectors’ wine auctioned off at insane prices; they won’t be a trophy wine on a restaurant’s list. They are meant to be enjoyed. With food. Preferably outside, when it’s hot and you have a plate of salami in front of you. Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other rich fatty foods also come from Emilia-Romagna and Lambrusco was designed to go with these foods. Smelling of violets and berries, most versions are dry, and all versions are delightfully refreshing. Some have an earthy aspect to the aroma and a tannic bite. I count it as one of the most food-friendly red wines around. And like most bubbly wine, it is a very social drink — best enjoyed among friends.

When you can embrace one of the more humble and strange wines of the world, then you are free indeed.



This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a very enjoyable barbecue. We brought golden trout covered in olive oil, salt, and pepper to grill and use for fish tacos. Weingut Weegmuller’s 2006 rosé from the Pfalz region of Germany was delicious with the tacos, which also contained shredded cabbage and Tapatio.

Typically my opinion is that wine doesn’t make the best pairing with Mexican food, but rather Mexican beer does a better job of washing down the the spicy and savory pieces of seafood and land animal parts. For instance, a tripa taco or two and cold bottle of Bohemia is one of my favorite meals. In this case however, the slight sweetness of the rosé offset the spiciness of the Tapitio and the crisp acidity complemented the trout. The idea that a German wine would pair well with Mexican food is funny to me, only because I’ve had “Mexican” food in Germany and the effort had gone pretty far amiss.

However, in the wine-pairing world, German Riesling is generally the go-to wine for all spicy cuisines — Chinese, Indian, Thai, etc. Again, my opinion is that beer is a superior match for those dishes.  Although I’ve had some of my happiest moments eating Sichuan food in Manhattan and washing it down with off-dry Riesling, it isn’t one of those successful pairings where the food is better because of the wine, and the wine is better because of the food. The cold dishes like tripe and tendon or widowed rabbit drenched in chili oil sort of end up reducing the the fine (and expensive) Riesling to a Sprite.

Foreau is one of the top producers in the Loire Valley appellation of Vouvray. It is often put on the same pedestal as Huet, and rightfully so, as their vineyards are close and share the same types of soil. I recently had Huet’s 2005 Le Haut Lieu Vouvray, which is sec, meaning dry. It was wonderful, with a chalky and floral nose, and a hefty roundness balanced by a line of lemony acid. I’m even more enamored with Foreau’s 2004 Vouvray Sec. The 2004 is the current release for Foreau, which I like because that means there is a little bit of age on the wine, and Chenin Blanc ages well. The nose is more complex, it’s taken on a little bit of a honey note, and smells like wet chalk. It has so much acidity (part of why it will age well) that its reminiscent of orange juice. This isn’t a wine to chug down like O.J. (though I do recommend it for brunch), but rather one to take time with and enjoy. It has so much mineral character, it’s almost like sucking on rocks. I love it!


Ode to Foreau

Foreau, Foreau, Foreau, Foreau,

How I love the grapes you grow.

Your chalky juice makes my heart swell,

Which delightful creature will suit you well?

If I were near the Chesapeake Bay,

I’d grill a soft shell crab today.

Instead I’ll go with Dungeness,

A delicious crab, no more, no less.

I’ve recently discovered an importer whose wines I admire very much. Years ago I began to pay attention to who was importing the wine that I was buying. Ferrando ErbaluceSimilar to trusting the taste in art of your favorite gallery or taste in music of a certain label, I recommend putting your trust in a wine importer whose wines consistently satisfy you. The first such importer for me was Neal Rosenthal. I was living in Providence, RI at the time, and shopped at a wonderful little store called Campus Wines. The buyer, Michael, had an insatiable enthusiasm for great wine, and he was a fan of the Rosenthal portfolio. I remember enjoying my first Erbaluce di Caluso by Luigi Ferrando on his recommendation. His portfolio is full of traditional, handmade gems from Italy and France that reflect a specific sense of place. The Vouvray is beyond a doubt, from Vouvray.

Louis/Dressner is another favorite of mine. Like Rosenthal, they focus on French and Italian wines. “Real wine” is how they describe them, unique wines made with the least amount of intervention possible.Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon I believe my first Louis/Dressner wine was a lightly sparkling, slightly sweet rosé made from the Poulsard grape in the Bugey-Cerdon appellation of the Savoie. Renardat-Fache is the producer.

In New York, while working at Appellation Wine and Spirits, I discovered another favorite — Terry Theise. I suppose Michael Skurnik is technically the importer, but he imports Terry’s distinctive and soulful selections of German, Austrian and grower-champagne. The first wine of Terry’s that I tasted was A.J. Adam‘s 2002 Dhronhofberger Tholey Riesling, a mesmerizing QbA from the Mosel.

Jenny & Francois is yet another favorite importer of interesting, real wine. Cousin GrolleauI’ll never forget my first Jenny & Francois wine — Olivier Cousin’s “Le Cousin” Rouge made from the Grolleau grape in the Anjou region of the Loire. I somehow got away with ordering it at a family dinner at the Brooklyn restaurant, Sorrel, and I loved everything about it! The crazy smells, the quaffibility, the mosquito cartoon on the label.

Jon-David Headrick is an importer whose wines I was just getting to know when I left New York for California. The first of his wines that I tasted was Domaine St. Nicolas’s Pinot Noir from the little known, seldom seen Loire Valley appellation Fiefs Vendéens. It smelled like graphite, proudly showing the terroir, rather than the varietal character of the grape. I look forward to trying more of his wine, though I haven’t seen much of it out here in California.

Now I can add Oliver McCRum, importer of very good Italian wine, to this illustrious list. The first McCrum wine I had was found at Corti Brothers in Sacramento. Barbolini LambruscoLa Cassacia’s Grignolino del Monferrato was everything I want out of Grignolino — a wine most people can live without, but I’m not one of them — bitter cherry and anis and acid all wrapped up in a translucent crimson package. It was excellent with my husband’s equally excellent pasta e fagioli. I adore McCrum’s Lambrusco producer, Barbolini, and wish it was available in Sacramento right now. We picked it up at Solano Cellars in Albany and drank it around a campfire in Big Sur. Recently I found his dry Trentino Moscato Giallo from Bolognani at Taylor’s Market in Sac, and it was great with a spread of radishes, turnips, anchovies, and walnuts. I’m excited to know that the Oliver McCrum name on a wine indicates deliciousness, and will continue to use it as criteria for picking out unfamiliar wines.

I love alpine wine. Whether it is from France, Switzerland, or Italy, the mountain-y crispness never fails to delight me. Last February I had the pleasure to visit my favorite producer working in the alpine region of Valle d’Aosta, Italy. Frères Grosjean is a family run operation based in the village of Quart. Valle d’Aosta is not only the most frequently overlooked state of Italy, it is one of the most interesting. Situated on the border of France, Switzerland and Piedmont, it has something in common viticulturally, and culturally, with all three of those places.

map of Valle d'Aosta

Vincent Grosjean was kind enough to accept a visit from me and my husband one afternoon. We communicated in french, because our french is better than our italian, and Vincent is fluent in both. The Valle d’Aosta is a bi-lingual state, and has had special autonomous status since 1948. Under Mussolini, there was an effort to “Italianize” the state — this is when Vincent was born, and so his official name is actually Vincenzo.

To get to Quart, one has to drive up steep windy road…for a really long time. We eventually found the address, but there wasn’t an obvious front door, or tasting room. Basically, there is no visitor infrastructure. We saw a young boy juggling a soccer ball and asked him where we could find Vincent Grosjean. “Mon pere!” he exclaimed proudly, and ran us over to his father’s office. Vincent first took us around in his mini-van to see the vines and the soil. The different grapes are grown at different elevations — the Pinot Noir higher, Gamay a little lower. In general, the vineyards are about 2500 feet in elevation, but they are on the south-facing slope of the valley so they get a lot of sun, and in mid-February there was no snow on the ground (though 2007 was kind of an odd year, climate wise). Mont Blanc looms over the valley like some sort of wizard’s post, and in general there is a little bit of a Lord of the Rings feel to the area. Grosjean's vines 

We came in from the vineyards to taste wine from the cask. He told us that he ferments the wines for about 10 days with natural yeasts. The 2006 vintage: first, the Petite Arvine in stainless steel was super fresh and cloudy, and very aromatic. If I could have such a cask installed in my house, with chilled, unfiltered Petite Arvine (a white grape also seen in Switzerland) at the ready, I’d be a very happy woman. Next we moved on to the gamay, also in stainless steel. It smelled strange, reduced due to lack of oxygen I guess, but it tasted wonderful. Typical, wonderful Gamay all the way. Then we tasted Pinot Noir, Torrette, and Fumin from large, old oak casks. The Pinot and Torrette (an appellation for red wine made from mostly Petite Rouge, a Valdostana grape not unlike Gamay), were exhibiting similar reduction on the nose, but tasted great. The Fumin, a recently resuscitated indigenous grape, wasn’t even reduced in the cask. It smelled strongly of licorice, and was deep purple in color (the other reds are light, and bright ruby). Only 500 cases of 5000 are brought to the US. We also tasted Pinot Noir in barrique, which didn’t excite me, though it might age well. Grosjean's stainless tanks

Next we moved to another room in the cellar, and sat down at a well-worn wooden table under Vincent’s collection of wine bottles from around the world. He opened a bottle of the 2005 Cornalin, the first vintage he’s made wine from this grape — another indigenous red variety. Somewhere in between Gamay and Pinot Noir, herbaceous and cherry-like fruit.

Next, the 2004 Fumin. This was excellent, more developed than what we’d tasted from the cask, but still deep, dense, and complex. Vincent generously put together a lunch of food made on the farm. Pane nero (bread made from rye flour), boudin (sausage made primarily from beets and potatoes, with a little bit of lard), salsicce (cured sausage), and mocetta (a local version of proscuitto, traditionally made with meat from the chamoix) made from beef. The Fumin went very well with the meat. Next he opened a Pinot Noir from 1997. Now I have to say, I had previously valued the Grosjean wines for their drinkability, for their friendliness towards food, but hadn’t thought of them as candidates for ageing. This ten year old Pinot was astonishing! It had developed into a complicated little thing, full of dried fruits on the nose, and still delicious to drink. Next we had late harvest Petite Arvine from 1994. It was an unusually warm harvest season, allowing them to leave these grapes on the vine until November. The wine was medium dry, with great acidity (I should add that all of Grosjean’s wine, and indeed all of the Valdostana wines in general, have excellent, racy and refreshing acid) to balance that sweetness. It smelled of aged wine, like an old Meursault, hazelnuts and pain d’epices. On the way out, my husband inquired about a stack of sparkling wine bottles in the corner. Vincent said that he made a sparkling wine just for consumption at the house, using the Blanc de Morgex (another Valdostana appellation) grape, Prié Blanc. Being the extremely generous host that he is, he sent us home with a bottle.

It was an unforgettable visit, and a delicious one. I tried to show him my appreciation by giving him an American style hug, but of course he went for the European kiss/kiss, and our good bye ended a bit awkwardly. I smoothed it over with a good old-fashioned thank you note when we got back to the States. The sparkling Prié Blanc? Wonderful, and I drank it a few days later on my birthday after a day of skiing in Cogne.

I have a strong memory of a wine I’m afraid I’ll never have again. It was a bom vinho da casa served in a churrasqueira in Peso da Regua, in the Douro region of Portugal. In a locals’ restaurant with no written menu we let the hostess choose our meal — grilled chicken with piri-piri sauce, onions, salad, rice and potatoes — and wine. She really pushed the bom vinho, and I’m glad she did. It arrived extremely chilled in an unmarked bottle sans cork and smelled like white port without the brandy. It had a tangy apple-y aroma, and a wild character. Unfiltered, it had an extraordinary amount of flavor and sediment — the sediment was something I enjoyed, but would no doubt be an unwelcome presence for most white wine drinkers. The wine was an excellent match for the warm day and highly flavorful chicken.

I intend to use this blog as a forum in which to discuss real wines like this, full of character and interest. I reject the high alcohol, low acid, clean and fruity, “international” wines made from the same 5 grape varieties. Give me Pineau d’Aunis! Trousseau! Romorantin! Prié Blanc! Grapes from climates that produce lower alcohol wines with lots of acidity, and interesting savory and mineral qualities in addition to fruit. Wines that smell great and encourage you to finish the bottle with dinner. I’ll also talk about food, travel, and general activities and how they pertain to these sorts of delightful wines.

I’ll leave you with a view of the terraced vineyards of Peso da Regua:

Terraced vineyards of Peso da Regua