We’re happy to introduce a new feature to Winophilia, in which some of this country’s most creative sommeliers and restaurant wine directors will discuss how they are responding to, and leading, current trends in wine-drinking behavior. These Sommelier Roundtables will provide insiders’ intelligence to help you get more pleasure from the wines and dishes you pair. They will also open your eyes and palates to exciting wines and wine categories you may never have considered before.
Here’s our first Roundtable topic. The responses of our panel of distinguished sommeliers will be offered in three installments.
Now that warm weather is on the way, and in light of the unwillingness of many consumers to splurge on pricey “collectible” wines in restaurants these days, what grape variety will you be emphasizing on your list, and actively recommending to your clients, in the months ahead—and why?
Chris Deegan, Wine Buyer, Nopa Restaurant (San Francisco). I have been focusing a little more attention on gamay these days. I can’t think of another wine that allows you to drink the very best the region has to offer for less than $50 in a restaurant. You have to be a millionaire to become an expert in Burgundy, but the breadth of Beaujolais is accessible to everyone. You can open any current wine guide and read up on who is the best of the best in any one of the crus (top villages) of Beaujolais and probably walk into your local wine shop and buy their top bottle without stopping by the bank (or clearing the purchase with your significant other). For this reason I always recommend cru Beaujolais.
But springtime is an especially good time to partake in the beauty of gamay. There is a slight herbal edge to many of these wines that goes well with all of the delicious green stuff showing up on menus right now. Beaujolais takes very well to drinking at cellar temp or just below cellar temp. (True cellar temperature will feel cool on your tongue; a little below will feel cold, which is nice on a warm spring afternoon or evening.) And finally, the versatility of Beaujolais is impressive. It’s a red wine that can function almost like a white at the table, allowing it to go with lighter spring dishes such as Northern Halibut with Spring Onion Cream, Sugar Snap Peas, Almonds and Kumquats. (The high-toned, pretty, floral Fleurie Les Garants from Domaine du Vissoux would be great here.) But it can also have enough structure to cut through heavier dishes like a Grilled Country Pork Chop with Roasted Asparagus, Rainbow Chard and Mustard. (We like the hard-edged, mineral-driven Moulin à Vent “Clos Du Tremblay” from Domaine Paul Janin here.)
And a final note that’s not so much for the restaurant crowd as for the home collector: Beaujolais can age! On a recent trip to France I visited Eric Janin at Domaine Paul Janin and he opened a 1985 Clos du Tremblay. It was astonishing—perhaps the best wine of my entire trip (and I visited Burgundy as well). The price of the current release of the same wine is about $41 on a restaurant wine list. Truly amazing.
Virginia Philip M.S., Master Sommelier, The Breakers (Palm Beach, FL). We have nine restaurants at The Breakers, which is located on 144 acres along the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. Generally speaking, it is always warm here so we always have a least two lighter white wines on our lists. Among my favorites are torrontés from Argentina and albariño from Spain. Why? Because neither requires food to enhance its flavor profile and both are excellent as aperitifs. Yet, should one decide to pair either variety with food, the pairing can enhance both the wine and the dish to achieve a tasting profile that is profound and unique.
The albariño grape, which is often thought to be a distant relative of riesling, offers high quality but is scarce and one of Spain’s more expensive white grapes. It remained virtually unknown here until the 1980s. It’s generally a medium-bodied wine with peach, pear and citrus notes enhanced by white flowers. We pair the Zarate Albariño 2006 Rias Baixas with Peekytoe Crab Salad, Black Radish, Avocado Marble, Fizzy Grapefruit Supremes with Compressed Melon Terrine and Coriander Vinaigrette. Torrontés is an extremely aromatic grape from Argentina and until the last few years was frequently found on home trellises and as a mixture in vineyards. Within the last decade, many pure plantings of this variety have appeared. From grapes grown in cooler climates at high altitude, it’s a crisp, clean wine with notes of honey, apple, lemon and jasmine. It usually does not see any oak and works well with or without food. We pair the Mauricio Lorca 2009 Fantasia Torrontés La Rioja with Marinated Fluke Ceviche with Chives, Wild Rice “Krispies,” Yuzu Vinaigrette and Coconut Foam.
Steven Grubbs, Wine Director, Five and Ten Restaurant (Athens, GA). Oh well, this one is easy: German riesling.
For the past year or so riesling has quietly been the little darling of people in the wine trade. There’s something sort of inside-baseball about drinking it, a something-you-don’t-know. We’ve seen a few folks convert along with us, but around here it has remained mostly a trade-only obsession. This actually seems to be a cyclical phenomenon: every generation or so it comes around, and every time it fails to go mainstream.
But a couple of my local wine buddies and myself have made a summer conspiracy pact to try, once again, to turn the civilians on to riesling. After all, southerners already consume unreal amounts of sweet drinks (mostly Coca-Cola and sweet tea). That is, until they get serious about wine. They then develop some backward association of sweet wine with Mad Dog 20/20 and 18-year-old sorority girls, and it’s only the muscular dry stuff from there on out. But German riesling is terribly dependable, it’s great with food, and it’s usually quite a bargain (at pretty much every level). I’m committed to retraining their tastes.
I think the first step is to get them to try it with food. Most rieslings have tremendous acidity, which not only provides freshness in the face of that extra sugar but also makes them very food-friendly (that acid acts as a preservative, too, making them highly durable and ageworthy). Anything fatty and spicy, especially with pork, is a natural pair for a Spätlese (and a Dönnhoff wine, while requiring some cash, will send drinkers into minor convulsions). Kabinetts are great with lighter, summery fare, like Vietnamese bun noodles. Kurt Darting makes a very affordable one-liter bottling of zippy Kabinett from the Pfalz that’s perfect. And if folks are completely turned off by the residual sugar they can wean themselves with Kabinett Trocken (dry) or Halbtrocken (off-dry). But generally even a quality Auslese finishes clean and not cloying. Again, loads of acid refreshment. It’s all in the mind.
The second step is to make sense of the labels. There are strings of difficult, intricate words on them, but once people know what to look for it’s an easily decipherable code, and one that’s actually very useful. The producer name is generally obvious, and then there’ll be something like WEHLENER SONNENUHR. What this means is that it comes from the town of Wehlen and more specifically from a vineyard named Sonnenuhr. After that it might say RIESLING SPÄTLESE, which tells you it’s a wine made from riesling grapes that have been ripened to the Spätlese level. This is the German Prädikat classification system. It tells you how ripe the grapes were that went into the wine, and it should clue you in to how rich and sweet the wine will be. A Kabinett will be simpler and somewhat dryer than a Spätlese, while an Auslese will be more rich and powerful and probably sweeter than both. Beyond that we enter the territory of dessert wine with Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (made from dried/shriveled grapes). So, once again, it’s PRODUCER, then TOWN, then VINEYARD, then VARIETY, and finally RIPENESS. Easy as pie.
This summer at the Five and Ten I’m planning to have a small box on the back of the menu offering three different rieslings by the glass. Folks will be able to choose from a Kabinett (sometimes a Trocken), a Spätlese, and an Auslese, or a flight of small pours from all three. Hopefully this will get people interested enough to play around with pairings a bit. Maybe they’ll fall in love the same way we have.
Belinda Chang, Wine Director, The Modern (New York City). For Chef Kreuther and The Modern kitchens, spring means the arrival of asparagus, fava beans, English peas, and fiddlehead ferns. Just yesterday, I walked through a profusion of green, and it wasn’t in our flower vases, it was on our guests’ plates. Our newest Prix Fixe menu is filled with dishes with elements traditionally considered to be some of the most challenging for pairing wines.
As it is still a bit cool in New York, many of our guests are still looking for reds to warm them up and to take them through the meal, and I am steering them towards cabernet franc. While the juicy, black-fruited wines made from cabernet sauvignon seem to get all of the street cred, I prefer the herbaceous, leafy, sappy character of cabernet franc. It’s the green in the dish being echoed by the green in the wine, and it has always worked for me. We pour Robert Sinskey Vandal Vineyard Cabernet Franc Carneros by the glass at the restaurant, and it deals with the Creekstone Beef Tenderloin cooked in Horseradish Broth “à la Ficelle” with Heirloom Beets, Sorrel Leaves and Horseradish Nage as successfully as it wrangles the Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Morel Mushrooms, Green Asparagus and Vin Jaune. As the warm weather nears, I will probably have a change of heart (and palate), but today I am sticking to my beloved franc.
Michael Kwas, Wine Director, L’Etoile Restaurant (Madison, WI). When the first asparagus rises in south central Wisconsin, L’Etoile turns to Austria’s grüner veltliner. We look for fresh, meadowy styles that reflect the filigreed flavors of spring: watercress, ramps, Brussels sprout blossoms and morels. Fortunately, these wines tend to be less expensive than single vineyard or Smaragd grüners, and they pair better with a wider range of dishes. For example, Schloss Gobelsburg’s 2008 Gobelsburger is light in every aspect, but it also has a complex panoply of flavors that are all wonderfully articulated. It still has a bit of spritz and possesses healthy acidity that’s finely interwoven with flavors of citrus, “cool” cress, and an undercurrent of lentil. We consider grüner veltliner the finest wine to drink with vegetables and in the same echelon as riesling, chardonnay and chenin blanc.
We love this wine with our Asparagus “Eggs Benedict.” Sommeliers will tell you that you should try to focus on the components of food and wine (acidity, sweetness, astringency) but truly great matches push this further and rely on the integration of flavors. Neither is easy with this dish: on the one hand, you have two alleged “wine killers”: a duck egg with an unorthodox spicy and acidic Hollandaise, and asparagus. It also hosts aggressively smoky Berkshire ham, shittake mushrooms, and a seed mustard/truffle vinaigrette. For some reason, grüner veltliner has a temperament that works well with asparagus and eggs. The Gobelsburger’s acidity balances the acidity of the dish, and the inner-mouth perfume of its woodland flower character complements the mushrooms and truffles, while contrasting the smokiness of the ham.
Jake Kosseff, Company Wine Director, Wild Ginger (Seattle). At Wild Ginger, spring is the time when we re-focus on our favorite wine: riesling. While we like riesling from just about everywhere, it’s the German ones that we really get excited about. It’s not just that these wines remind us of spring with their crisp acidity and bright fruit, but that they are almost the perfect wines for much of our traditional southeast Asian cuisine.
German riesling comes in a multitude of styles and sweetnesses, and far from being a deterrent, we find this to be one of its great attractions. There are slightly sweet wines that don’t require much thought but are eminently satisfying, like the Schäfer-Frölich Medium-Dry Riesling QbA from Nahe, that are a perfect match for nearly any dish. There are dry, powerful rieslings, like the Leitz Rüdesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken from Rheingau, that are best when they are a few years old (we’re starting to serve 2005s now) and go wonderfully with rich, savory foods like roast duck with Chinese five spice. There are sweeter wines like the Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese from the Mosel that, while delightful to drink upon release, is indescribably complex ten years later, and is the perfect pairing (at either age) for spicy and sweet coconut milk curry dishes like Indonesian curry Dungeness crab. And best of all, these wines are downright cheap compared to wines of equal quality from the nearly anywhere else.