Right now my daughter is grasping at everything just above her head, her tiny fingers gripping ledges and seat cushions as she weighs their accessibility against the ever-evolving strength of her legs. It is an evolution, too—she’s becoming another thing all together, once just a coil of new arms and belly and toes and head and now unfurling in this glorious, cacophonous tiny beast. She’s leaning into her first everything. She wants to taste the world, and it’s summer, so the world is waiting to be tasted.
It’s Saturday and my husband decides it’s time to organize the cellar. Many times, he’ll find wine for down there and just stack it near the entrance for time’s sake, but because there’s a loose regional organization, things have to be situated or you lose track of what’s hiding. Some of those “lost” bottles surface while he digs, bottles he decides need to be investigated to see where they are in their development or if they’ve taken the dive over the hill. One can age wine for too long, it’s a tricky balance, and thus begins the construction of the most elaborate wine dinner in recent memory.
On a Monday night, the baby is dozing in her swing and we are cooking dinner together after what hopefully is the last snow of the year. We are very, very hopeful. Chicken, preserved plum sauce, endive and beet salad, and couscous with walnuts, the kitchen is thick with salt and spice and heat.
“What would you like to drink?” my husband asks. He always asks me. I always answer the same.
Everybody, that is, everybody with a commitment to the occasional/frequent/regular glass of wine, has bottles they remember as the “aha moments,” the ones that changed the way they thought about wine one way or another. It could be the first bottle they tried and enjoyed, or the one that showed them that Chardonnay wasn’t all that bad, or even that very inexpensive bottles of wine aren’t always offensive. Here are a few of mine.
Grimaldi Barbera 2005
This is the first wine that taught me that what I paid didn’t always reflect on the quality of the bottle. The Grimaldi was brought in on closeout, I think, something like that, but it was dirt cheap and easily dismissible. We all liked to pretend we were too good for cheap wine, but when it came right down to it, a shop girl’s paycheck doesn’t exactly support a high roller lifestyle, so we all drank the Barbera a lot. I mean a lot. It taught me to take a risk on an inexpensive bottle every now and again, because worst case scenario, I don’t like it or it becomes Coq au Vin. Best case scenario, I find an inexpensive accompaniment to a weekday dinner.
Barbera is an Italian grape from Piedmont designed for everyday drinking, high in acid and punchy red fruit. With a little age, it can have great depth and grip and is still one of my favorite varieties to drink. The Grimaldi wasn’t fancy, but if I were handed a glass without seeing a price tag, you could’ve fooled me.
Tenuta de la Terre Nere 2009
This Sicilian red was the first sheer, relatively light-bodied red I liked and enjoyed. It was inventory night at the shop and my boss decided she’d open a bottle for the five of us to help pass the time.
When you’re a new wine drinker, I’d say maybe 80 percent of the time, your way into the wine world is through fruit. A wine that has a lot of young, vibrant, “that’s right, I was made from grapes” fruitiness keeps acid and tannin, what usually get described as “bitterness,” in check. I was definitely no different and can with only mild shame reveal that I drank a lot of bottled sangria and fruit-infused local wines before dipping into the real stuff, and when I finally got there, it was a lot of red Zinfandel. Like, a lot of red Zinfandel. I think I bought us out of a few of them. The bold, concentrated, briery fruit punching me in the taste buds made the delicacy of Pinot Noir seem thin, watery, and weak.
But the Terre Nere, made primarily from the native grape Nerello Mascalese, was definitely light-bodied, and it definitely had plenty of acid and earth and subtlety, but I liked it. A lot. “Guys,” I said, swirling my glass. “I think I just became a big girl.”
It’s only fitting to end the year with a commemorative list. I don’t remember which part of my Myers-Briggs personality combination makes me prone to list making, but it is my habit and I’d be living a lie to hold back now. It’s the beginning of a new year and the end of a BIG year! Why wouldn’t I want to list my top five Food and Wine experiences of 2013?
5. Breakfast in Antigua (July)
We accidentally ended up in the Caribbean this summer…long story…but as it was the first time my husband and I had been there, we were both taken with the tropical-ness of it all. Supremely casual, slow-paced, and relaxed, we rose whenever we felt like it, strolled down to the beach, and sat at tiny café tables in the sand while dining on the most beautiful tropical fruit I’ve ever seen. With papayas bigger than my head, the freshest pineapple, and passion fruit right off the tree, I looked forward to waking up.
What to drink: vats of iced tea with lime and passion fruit scooped right in. It was breakfast, after all.
4. Lunch at Il Convento in Puglia (March)
We took our honeymoon was a month after our wedding and I’d just found out I was pregnant. So with a bag packed full of stretchy pants and three boxes of saltines, we got on a plane for Italy and landed in the wettest, coldest spring the area had seen in decades. A pale shade of sea foam gracing my cheeks, we drove all over Southern Italy, stopping at various food and wine destinations we’d set up before I was in my first trimester and hoped for the best at each stop.
The top of my list is still Il Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli in Puglia, right at the tip of the Italian boot. The convent-turned bed and breakfast has walls and rooms lined with ancient artifacts from all over Africa, the South Pacific, India, masks and figures and fabric and wooden statues, and the in-house chef Pierre-Luigi daily prepares beautiful meals. Every afternoon, they’d tuck just the two of us into one of the many tiny rooms and serve elaborate, leisurely lunches. The best was a typical Puglese lunch, a smattering of salumi, fresh fava beans, pickled artichokes, bread, local cheeses, pasta made by Pierre-Luigi’s mother, and fresh peas. It was amazing, vibrant, fresh, real.
What to drink: A local rosé made from Negroamaro. Spring, quintessentially.
3. Family pasta dinner at the beach (August)
A few of my family members have homes in Spring Lake, New Jersey where we all gather over a rolling few vacation weeks every summer. My aunt, who loves to garden but won’t plant anything without a flower or fruit, has developed a pretty stellar garden including squash, herbs, figs, grapes, raspberries, and mountains of tomatoes. This year, we brought down even more tomatoes and with our powers combined, we made a fresh tomato sauce for pasta night for our big family. A bucket of chopped tomatoes, lots of basil, a tiny bit of garlic, a little chili, salt, and a touch of honey macerated together as we cooked mountains of pasta (glutinous and gluten- free to be accommodating, naturally), then tossed it all with the sauce we’d made, which was heated just enough to take the chill off and then tossed with the warm pasta so the noodles would absorb the fresh juice. It was the most satisfying, seasonally appropriate dish of the summer.
What to drink: Rosso di Montalcino started the evening, followed by whatever else was in large quantity (for about 20 of us, after all).
The following is the third in a three-part recollection of my time spent in Alsace last autumn for harvest at a winery called Sipp Mack in Hunawhir, a little village with a rich history, much of which is knee-deep in grape juice. Here are more stories from the vineyard. (Read Part I here, and Part II here.)
The last day of my harvest was wet. I say “my” because the weather created a strange rhythm for the harvesters and a few more days after my departure will be required to collect all the crop, Riesling especially, Grand Cru especially. We hadn’t touched those yet, they’re the true gems of production, too. The rain is persistent and though the forecast predicted that Thursday to be moderately clear, it’s teeming rain by the time we hit the vines, each row lined with what quickly becomes shin-deep mud. I left my jacket home, and my vest is soaked through. There’s no warmth in baggy latex gloves and the water and Pinot Gris juice fill them anyway, so they’re abandoned pretty quickly. All of us out there look like weary wanderers, plastic bags and other makeshift endeavors manufactured around heads and hands. I give up after a bit, I am just damp.
The rain stops in time for me to be ready for it, but the mud persists. On either side of every row there’s a patch of grass or a train of mud, I think caused by the occasional drive through of a tractor. It doesn’t take long for the partner on the mud side to accumulate additional pounds of the mortar-like grass-and-dirt combination caked to the bottom of the boots. My wellies have finally given up and cracked along the ankle, making for a significant slosh in between my toes.
That day last day in the vineyard took away much of the romantic notion of grapes ripening on the vine. The combination of rain and warmer evenings means the grapes are more prone to mold, and though it’s not universal, some of them are so fuzzy it’s hard to believe anything good can come of them. The mold makes them more fragile, more prone to turning on the vine, so we submit them to a sniff test: does it smell like vinegar? No? Into the bucket it goes! The juice will be cleaned up significantly before the winemaking begins, so no harm, no foul.
It’s still October, it’s still harvest season, and I’m still finding pieces of my trip to Alsace to remember and relive. To refresh readers’ memories, I spent a few weeks last October harvesting at Sipp Mack, a family owned and operated winery in the northeast corner of France. Here are more stories from the vineyard.
October 2, 2012
The dining room is a warm shade of deep walnut with accents of toasted things: wood, bread, sugar, fruit. Everything a little caramelized. Everything warm.
In the early morning before dawn, the group is comprised of seven people, ranging from about 30 to 70, and none of them speak English. “Café?” they ask. This I understand. I sit with my cup as each takes turns gesturing at various foodstuffs on the table: bread, all sorts, sliced and piled in large plastic grocery bag, butter, Nutella, assorted marmalades. We begin. Even here, in the subdued glow of a few yellow lights, there is laughter.
The fields are much wetter and much colder in the morning and we arrive just as the sun is up. Distributing ourselves down each row, pairing off and standing on either side, we pick along the vines looking for hiding little morsels, filling buckets and yelling “un seau” when we need a new one. Mostly I am wracked with self-consciousness regarding my Americanness, so I position the bucket to strategically get the attention of somebody who will be needing un seau around the same time I will, and they say “deux seau” instead. We finish (I never realize we’re done until there isn’t anymore vine to clip…the process is so strategically calculated and easy to lose one’s self in) and we hop in the vans and go again.
Invariably, somebody asks for music, and almost invariably it’s a forgotten American pop song from about 28 years ago, or a contemporary French song that sounds strikingly similar. There is singing and scolding.
I opened the paper this morning and found an article about an amateur winemaking competition here in Maryland that focuses heavily on fruit wines. Fruit wines? As opposed to…root vegetable wines? Fungus wines? Legume wines?
As it turns out, in the European Union, the word “wine” applies solely to those comprised totally of grapes. In the UK and across all fifty of these United States, however, wines can be made of other things and are usually delineated by adding a qualifier to the title: cherry wine, or blackberry wine, for example. The standard definition, though, is fermented grape juice. So what’s so special about grapes?
First, let’s talk fruit. I’ll go ahead and say that the best wine (“best” implying quality of ingredients, longevity, attention to detail, and careful construction) always comes from grapes and we can argue that however you like, but there are plenty of other wines made from alternative fruits.
Fruit wines are about as old as beverages get and probably generated from where so many wonderful things come from: necessity and accident. Think about it: you plant crops or stumble across a patch of wild berries of one kind or another, you pick as many as you can, eat as many as you can, but maybe there’s excess. Left alone in a pot or bucket, the juice starts to ooze out as the berries crush each other. Maybe you forget about it for a little while, and come back and it’s a little foamy, a little less sweet, and when you taste it (because obviously you taste the mystery pot of foamy liquid…) makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And voilà: accidental fruit wine.
I’m not terrifically well-versed in alternatively fruited wines, most of my experience hinging on the sippy cups of apple juice my sisters would leave in the back of a hot van for a few weeks, but I have sipped a few from blueberries or blackberries and I have a pretty basic understanding of what this is all about. They’re generally a little sweeter than your standard grape wine, they’re often a little simpler as far as production goes, and their shelf life isn’t all that long—that is, drink ‘em young.
After traveling across the ocean and the continental United States to college, it turned out that vegetarianism—well, pescatarianism—was pretty easy to follow at a crunchy east coast liberal arts college. I never missed pork or beef or chicken, ate a lot of peanut butter and Goldfish, and was a generally happy camper, gastronomically speaking. Since graduating, I’ve introduced fowl of all sorts back into my diet, and since pregnancy, bacon is familiar territory, but in generally fish finds its way onto my plate fairly often. Unwilling to sacrifice my love of red wine for my arbitrary dietary choices, I’ve often dabbled in red wine and fish pairings, a long pronounced no-no in many food and wine pairing discussions. I’m happy to announce there are scads of options for people like me.
First things first: When you talk about pairing wines and food, it’s important to consider the weight of each. Not literally, don’t whip out a scale, but the heft of the punches the dish and the wine individually pack. If your food and wine don’t match in weight (or at least get close), chances are one will trump the other. With wine, a quick recap, we can consider the weight or body of a wine by comparing it to milk: skim milk is just a tad richer than water, so we’ll call it light. Whole milk is more viscous so we’ll call it medium-bodied. And heavy cream is thick and creamy, totally palate coating and is therefore heavy or full-bodied. They all spawn from the same material, but coat your palate differently.
To put that in the context of actual wines, consider the classic Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir: These are notoriously “light” wines, meaning they won’t coat the inside of your mouth as much as heftier bottles will and are more likely to be called refreshing than rich. Medium-bodied wines include many Tempranillos, Zinfandels, or Verdejos (a Spanish grape, see my article on the Pinot Grigio Problem for more!). Wines dubbed heavy or full-bodied more often include Cabernet Sauvignon and heavily oaked Chardonnay. There are white and red expressions of all weights of wine, something to keep in mind when we get to our dishes.
We’re talking fish here, but fish are just as heterogeneous as wines when it comes to texture, richness, and preparation. What’s the fish’s texture? Is it delicate, white, and flakey? Is it an oily fish? Was it cooked with citrus and herbs? Is there a cream or reduction sauce? What’s your garnish? What’s the most powerful flavor on the dish? When you’re picking out what glass you want to join you for dinner, consider the table as a whole.
One thing, probably the source for that earlier discounted red wine and fish pairing rule, fish oil is generally not a friend to wine’s tannins. The combination of the two chemically creates an unpleasant and persistent metallic taste that’ll dominate whatever else you may taste. And while I’m not an expert, but I do have a few favorite dishes and red wine pairings that I’d love to share.
There are plenty of bottles to brag about, lots of labels to plaster your conversation with and be annoyed by and have “Dear Diary” moments with. We’ve all heard folks boast about Cakebread and Veuve Clicquot and other famous bottles with a lot of name prestige, but they certainly have a hefty price tag attached. I love a treat bottle as much as anybody, but I really get excited to share are the best values I can find.
Often when we talk about value and wine, our first instinct is to assume it means cheap. It drove me nuts when people’s only goal in a wine store was to find the least expensive but most tolerable bottle on the shelves (common question: “Is this $6.99 bottle drinkable?”) without considering the value of the product relative to the purpose that it’s serving. “What’s the cheapest?” will lead you astray. The best question to ask may be “What wine in my price bracket will be the most worthwhile, that is, give the most worth, with my pizza/popcorn/movie night/fancy dinner/brunch/barbecue/etc.?”
There are no hard and fast rules about good value wines because that could mean so many things to different people. A “good value” Châteuneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone Valley in France is likely to still cost at least $40, but for the same money, you could get a top-of-the-line Argentinean Malbec. But if you’re looking for a braggable, “I-paid-minimally-for-this-killer-wine” kind of bottle, there are a few geographic locations where the odds are stacked more in your favor than from other places. Keep in mind these are general ideas, but hopefully they will steer you in the right direction.
Chile Pardon me, my bias is showing. I love Chilean wine. And a lot of that may come from the fact that it’s relatively short history made it more conquerable than other regions, but regardless, Chilean wine has a rusticity and charm that oozes the wild, rugged terrain it comes from. Dried herbs, subtle smoke, and ripe, dense fruit play in different proportions in many of Chilean reds, while whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are dappled with tropical fruit, citrus, and flowers. It’s the wild frontier as far as the viticultural world is concerned and offers some of the best bang for the buck in the market.