Articles in Wine
If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.
Once upon a wine
On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.
Terroir, terroir, terroir
Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.
If the soil is productive, it’s due less to topography than to the stewardship of the terrain over centuries. For millennia, the Pugliese have supplied the lion’s share of Italy’s three principal staples: wine, wheat and olive oil. They still do, and grow enough table grapes, olives, almonds, cereals and vegetables to feed the rest of Italy and export abroad.
In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Tenuta Viglione in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”
Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”
Food of the ancients
Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.
Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.
Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.
Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper
It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.
Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.
Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!
Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.
1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly
Fine sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
16 thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley leaves
3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks
Toothpicks for serving
1. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.
2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.
Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.
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Classic Mignonette Sauce
–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1 tablespoon course ground black pepper
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup sparkling wine
Salt to taste
Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.
— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)
2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish
Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.
Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock
The real trick to pairing food with wine is not to take it too seriously, but rather just play with it. When chef Olivier Combe, whose restaurant CO2 is one of the best in Avignon, France, plays this kind of game — pairing his dishes with some of the best wines from nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape — it’s not only fun, it’s drop dead delicious.
In April, Combe and the producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape held what you might call a Master Class on food and wine pairing for an international gathering of wine geeks, bloggers, vintners, and journalists.
Wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are almost never made from one sole grape variety. A palette of 13 different grapes may enter into the blend. For whites, the chief grape is Grenache Blanc, usually blended with different percentages of Bourboulenc, Clairette and/or Roussanne, the last of which is often fermented or aged in oak.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for majestic reds which account for most of the production, but the pairings at this event included a majority of whites which are often overlooked. Further, Combe’s menu transitioned from white wine to red and back to white again. I love that kind of freewheeling liberty.
Welcoming us was a glass of 2013 Chateau de Vaudieu, barrel fermented white made primarily from Grenache and Roussanne. Simultaneously plump and fresh, with mild but distinct oak notes, it nicely whet the palate for the organoleptic onslaught.
Melt-in-your mouth food and luscious wine
Combe’s home-cured gravlax was the first dish. Cubes of fleshy salmon sat on a light cream sauce, judiciously seasoned with dill, lemon zest and shallots.
Each of the two whites paired with the gravlax worked beautifully, bridges of flavor joining the salmon and the cream sauce. The 2013 Domaine Giraud Les Gallimardes, a blend of equal parts Grenache, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc, was fresh, full and gently oaky. The 2013 Domaine Patrice Magni was tight and mouthfilling, with vibrant flavors of lemon and lemon zests.
In another life, Olivier Combe must have been a sushi chef, so deftly did he sear the medallions of superb tuna that followed the gravlax. Essentially raw, only the extreme outer edges of the tuna were blistered with a crust hauntingly scented by Timut pepper. It was almost a pity to mask that purity by combining the tuna with the palate-tingling hot-sweet Thai sauce served alongside.
Enter the first red Chateauneuf-du-Pape of the day, the 1985 Clos du Mont Olivet. Like the appellation’s whites, the reds are almost always made from a blend of grapes, primarily Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Mont Olivet, for example, was 80% Grenache, assembled with small amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Aging with dignity, it was a smooth and inviting weave of dried fruit and herbs and very much at home with the tuna sans Thai sauce.
Then it was back to white Chateauneuf-du-Pape with the 2011 Clos Saint Paul that accompanied a large slab of melt-in-the-mouth foie gras. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Roussanne, the wine was rich and mellow, with notes of oak and faint hints of oxidation. Enjoyable as the wine was, everyone felt that a much, much older white Chateauneuf would have been a better foil for the foie gras — an enticing proposition that earned a round of applause.
The main dish was a toothsome parmentier of long-simmered, minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with a succulent mound of creamy potatoes.
Of the two reds served, it was the 2004 Domaine du Bois de Boursan Cuvée des Félix, an organic wine, that won universal acclaim. Chiefly Grenache with some Mourvèdre, it had aged beautifully, presenting a homey tapestry of dried red fruit and herbs which married seamlessly with the parmentier.
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Next, slices of Comté — each from a specific sub-region — were paired with the 2011 Domaine des 3 Cellier Réserve, a white made from pure Roussanne, fermented and aged in barrel. Pale gold, with a hint of butterscotch, it went nicely with the nutty, borderline butterscotch flavors of the cheese, but the wine served with dessert might have been a more vibrant partner.
The dessert finale
Dessert was a chestnut tiramisu made by the chef’s wife, Jeanne. This cloud of froth accented by chestnut was paired with a fascinating wine from Domaine de la Charbonnière. A blend of Clairette and Bourboulenc, harvested late when the grapes were totally shriveled, it was extremely sweet but nicely balanced by acidity. By law, it’s not a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, though this type of wine was historically made for communions and baptisms.
Since my palate does not appreciate sweet-on-sweet, I’d have served this with the foie gras or with the comté and I’d have paired the tiramisu with a good bourbon or Armagnac or an ice-cold iced coffee.
So sure, certain dishes go best with certain wines, but I polished it all off anyway.
Main photo: Parmentier of long-simmered minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with creamy potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Federation des Producteurs de Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.
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But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its homeland.
In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.
On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.
Per Se Vines
Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.
“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”
Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.
Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.
The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.
The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.
They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.
Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.
Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.
José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.
The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).
Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.
Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of female winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a wine-making career in the valley.
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Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily supplemented their meals with the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.
She never thought about grapes or wine.
Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak, who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives.
Learning wine making around the world
Near Margaret River in Western Australia, they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery where she learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine.
She and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate — terroir — created different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.
Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.
Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels.
Mastering the art and science of wine
To become a winemaker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art.
Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker.
Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines.
What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.
At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.
As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira.
In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.
Harvest — exciting and nerve-racking
With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “OK, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins.
The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days.
During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so.
At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, then it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira.
Fermenting and then blending
What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality of the grapes matters, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker.
Depending on the style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.
During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.
And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.
At the end of the day, even with all those stresses, Miller counts herself lucky to have found a career she loves, in a valley that produces beautiful wines.
Main photo: Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt
Portugal is famous for producing two styles of wine that couldn’t be more different: Port and Vinho Verde. Port is known as a wine for winter — rich and warming, perfect for fireside sipping. Vinho Verde is the yin to Port’s yang — light, fresh and (typically) white. Vinho Verde is a wine for spring.
With a name that translates to “green wine,” in reference to its youth and freshness, Vinho Verde comes from the rainy region of the same name in the northwest corner of Portugal. While reds and rosés are also made there, Vinho Verde wines are primarily white. Known for their crispness, acidity and light effervescence, the wines are naturally low in alcohol and usually priced under $10.
The new Vinho Verde
While those cheap-and-cheerful wines are still plentiful, a new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging alongside them. Like their traditional cousins, these wines are crisp and refreshing, yet they’re drier, riper and more mature in character. Their alcohol levels are low compared to many other whites, but at 12%, they’re a bit higher than the traditional 8% or 9% for Vinho Verde. Prices also have gone up, from about $7 a bottle to a still-affordable range of $11 to $20.
Another notable change is that producers are starting to showcase single-grape varieties such as Alvarinho, Loureiro and Trajadura, which were traditionally blended together.
This new approach is the result of a campaign by the region’s viticulture commission to encourage growers to plant in new locations, and improve their farming practices. Instead of using the old pergola trellis systems, growers are wire-training the vines on more modern systems. Rather than planting on the valley floors, they’re planting on slopes. The result has been a remarkable increase in the quality and complexity of the wines.
Wines for spring dishes
The great thing about the new-wave Vinho Verde wines is that they’re still wonderful for spring sipping. Not laden down with heavy oak, the wines pair beautifully with warm-weather dishes, including salads, shellfish and grilled fish. In Portugal, where fabulous fresh seafood is plentiful, Vinho Verde is often served with grilled sardines, arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and clams cooked in a cataplana.
Here are four delicious Vinho Verde wines to help you ring in spring:
Quinta de Gomariz Loureiro 2014 ($13): Made from the Loureiro grape, this wine has a spicy, floral aroma. It has fresh citrus notes on the palate, accented with spice and a bit of orange peel flavor on the finish.
Vercoope Via Latina Loureiro 2014 ($18): This wine has lovely aromas of green apples and citrus, with light floral notes. It’s fresh and crisp, with citrus and green apple flavors, and just a bit of tropical fruit. It’s nicely balanced, with bright acidity.
Aromas das Castas
Aromas Das Castas Alvarinho-Trajadura 2014 ($12): With a fresh, peachy aroma, this wine is slightly spritzy, with tangy citrus and peach flavors. It has a nice long finish, with a note of lemon zest.
Casa de Vilacetinho
Casa de Vilacetinho 2013 ($11): A blend of Avesso, Arinto, Azal and Loureiro grapes, this wine has citrus and tropical fruit aromas. It’s off-dry and a little bit fizzy, with stone fruit and citrus flavors.
Main photo: A new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging, and it’s perfect for springtime sipping. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo
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I was tasting the 2012 Grand Veneur Côtes du Rhône “Les Champauvins,” a smooth, nicely structured red with flavors of black and red berries. It was so cozy and friendly that, dear reader, I felt a Cole Porter song coming on: “You’d be so nice to come home to. You’d be so nice by the fire. …”
At $15 to $20, I could imagine coming home to that wine when a bit of self-pampering was warranted.
“Les Champauvins” was made by the Jaume family, whose winery is located in Orange in France’s Rhone Valley. Created in 1826, the domaine is now run by the sixth generation: Sebastien Jaume, 36, the winemaker, is an enologist who worked at the Erath Winery in Oregon, Château Gruaud Larose in Bordeaux and Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Christophe, 35, handles marketing, and Helene, 25, oversees the newest acquisition, Château Mazanne in Vacqueyras.
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The domaine originally comprised 12 hectares (almost 30 acres) of vines when Alain Jaume took over in the 1970s. It has since expanded to 90 hectares (about 222 acres), spanning the southern Rhone. Wines made from these vines are sold under the Grand Veneur label.
There is also a negociant line labeled Alain Jaume that encompasses an encyclopedic range of wines from simple Côtes du Rhône to Gigondas. As if that weren’t enough, the family rents out a vacation home at Château Mazanne that sleeps 17, has a pool and endless mountain vistas.
But I digress — back to that Champauvins.
Champauvins, a rich blend
Like all of Grand Veneur reds, this is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, though percentages vary according to the wine.
Grenache brings a unique, sweet smoothness to a blend and accounts for 70% of Les Champauvins. Syrah deepens color and adds exotic scents. Mourvedre delivers tannins, power and age-ability. In general, both the Syrah and the Mourvedre mature, at least partly, in oak barrels, whereas the Grenache ages only in tanks.
Viticulture at the estate-owned properties is organic. Grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are hand-harvested; most of the others are as well, except when climatic conditions demand speed.
Les Champauvins is located 10 feet beyond the Châteauneuf-du-Pape zone, not far from Jaume’s vines in that appellation, and its soils are similar: red clay carpeted with large rocks streaked with quartz called galets roulés.
Another major Jaume property is in the Lirac appellation, across the Rhone from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s the site of the deservedly popular Domaine du Clos du Sixte. The lip-smacking 2012, rich and velvety, mixes light oak flavors with those of black cherries and herbs like thyme and bay leaf ($12 to $25).
Three heroic red Chateauneuf-du-Papes
Three red Châteauneuf-du-Papes are all in the northern sector of the zone. In addition to varying percentages of the three grapes, differences in the three bottlings can be accounted for chiefly by the age of the vines and choice of fermentation techniques.
The basic Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 70% Grenache, is a delicious mouthful of the savory flavors of herbs as well as sweet ones like black cherry. Its texture is velvety, revealing the dulcet character of Grenache combined with the exoticism of Syrah and the muscle of Mourvedre. It’s nicely priced at under $40.
Next, “Les Origines” is made from a northern sector of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard. Its grapes are painstakingly sorted before fermenting for three weeks with regular punching down. Its dark robe presages deep flavors of gently crushed black and blueberries, licorice and coffee bean. The wine is fresh and smooth and lifted by a hint of menthol.
The vines for Grand Veneur’s Vieilles Vignes are more than 75 years old. Grenache makes up 50% of the blend, Mourvedre, 40%. Nearly pitch black with purple reflections, it’s a potent weave of blackberry, blueberry, herbs, dark chocolate and licorice. Rich it is, but cool, too, with no jagged edges, no heaviness and a long finish. It’s Jaume’s priciest wine, at around $96.
Ideal food pairings
You can cellar all these wines for decades. Or drink them now. In the latter case, decant them a good two hours in advance and put the carafe in a basin of cool water in order to serve the wine at about 60 F.
One dish the Jaumes pair with these wines is wild duck with roasted figs — which sounds yummy. What’s more, it evokes the culinary association that inspired the domaine’s name. The term dates from the Ancien Regime’s chasse au cour. The results of the hunt would be served with a blood-thickened variation on the sauce poivrade called Sauce Grand Veneur.
But Easter is approaching and these wines are superb with lamb, my current favorite. My late uncle Bill, however, traditionally baked ham with pineapple. With that, I’d want a special white.
Jaume’s oak-aged Chateauneuf-du-Pape “la Fontaine” is pure and quite plush Roussane ($80) that I’d save for lobster. For a marriage truly made in heaven, however, I’d grab their discreetly fragrant Viognier, a Cotes du Rhone ($12), with mingled flavours of apple, litchi, pear and white-fleshed peaches. I feel a song coming on.
Main photo: Alain Jaume and two sons. The family winery was begun in 1826 and today spans the southern Rhone Valley. Credit: Copyright Alaine Jaume & Fils