Articles in Wine

The barrel cellar at Marqués de Cáceres. Credit: Copyright 2015 Marqués de Cáceres

Rioja is one of the five great wine regions of the world, its wines celebrated both for their great longevity and for their extraordinary value. Only here do the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva carry the weight of law: To qualify as the former, a wine must be aged in oak for a minimum of one year and spend two years in bottle before release, while the latter ages in oak for at least two years and in bottle for three. (Crianza requires a year both in oak and in bottle.) So the wines come pre-aged — and for prices that make Bordeaux or Tuscany seem exorbitant.

Today, winemakers such as Juan Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi and Telmo Rodriguez of Remelluri are arguing passionately that Rioja’s terroirs are as complex as Burgundy’s and that its wines should therefore be classified by village cru rather than length of time in barrel. But it will take a generation for such revolutionary change to occur in Spain; meanwhile, there is a panoply of styles to be savored, from the French oak-aged lusciousness of Roda’s Sela to the seamless classicism of La Rioja Alta’s 904. For complexity, longevity and value, not to mention sheer enjoyment, no red-wine region in the world can compete with Rioja. Olé!

CVNE Viña Real Reserva 2005

 

Cvne Vina Real Reserva.resizeA delicious wine from CVNE, one of the old aristocratic bodegas of Rioja. Very sweet red fruit on the nose — first strawberry, then raspberry and ripe cherry, with hints of balsamic and molasses. Dense, ripe juicy tannins; lovely, lengthy notes of earth and dry bark. Around $40.

Artadi Viñas de Gain 2011

ARTADI

Juan-Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi is among Rioja’s radicals, his mission to highlight the region’s great microterroirs. This wine has superb bright fruit, a hint of leather on the palate, along with sour damson plum and briar, textured tannins, and a fine juicy finish. About $26.

Ysios Reserva 2008

Bodegas Ysios in Álava, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ysios

Bodegas Ysios in Álava, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ysios

Ysios is one of Rioja’s most arresting bodegas, its wavelike façade designed by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava to echo the peaks of the sierra in the distance. Equally impressive is this dense, restrained yet powerful modern Rioja, showing scrumptious blackberry fruit, minerality, smooth tannins and mouthwatering acidity. “We look for concentration, softness and energy,” winemaker Roberto Vicente says. Quite. About $26.

Marqués de Murrieta Capellania Reserva Blanco, 2010

capellania

 

Rioja’s whites have a reputation for oakiness, but winemakers such as Murrieta’s Maria Vargas march to a different beat. This 100% Viura (the grape known as Macabeo in France) is full-bodied, certainly, but it’s balanced by dancing acidity, the aromas of roast almonds and white fruit, and a delicate, creamy finish. Delicious. About $20.

Remelluri La Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri Blanco, 2007

Remelluri

Is this offering from Remelluri the best white wine in Spain? Telmo Rodriguez’s field blend of Viura, Albariño and half a dozen other varieties makes the blood sing in your veins. White flowers on the nose precede a rounded palate with stone fruits such as peach, exotic spice and honey, pierced through with bracing acidity and fine mineral length. Balanced, luscious, triumphant. Around $25.

Ramón Bilbao Viñedos Altura 2011

Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Haro. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ramón Bilbao

Bodegas Ramón Bilbao in Haro. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ramón Bilbao

Riojanos can be snobbish about Garnacha, considering Tempranillo the only true noble grape of the region. Ignore them. The 50% Garnacha in this blend from Ramón Bilbao allows it a perfumed freshness, with lifted raspberry on the nose and juicy blackcurrant on the palate as well as a textured, tannic finish. Mouthwatering. About $20.

Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Reserva 2009

Caceres Excellens

Though established in the 1970s, Caceres is known as one of the most conservative of the great estates. That image may change somewhat with Excellens, a new range from small, high-altitude vineyards; the Reserva’s expressive, cool spearmint nose with salted caramel leads to a palate with fresh blackcurrant and sour plum. Ultramodern, international style with soft tannins enlivened by tart acidity. Good. Around $16.

Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel 2010

Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego. Credit: Copyright 2015 Adam Lechmere

Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego. Credit: Copyright 2015 Adam Lechmere

Established in 1858, Riscal is one of Rioja’s oldest bodegas, but with its titanium-clad hotel it rivals Ysios for modernist cool. Wines like this one, however, are classic. Lovely briar and licorice nose with a salty, river-mud stink, plus white pepper and fresh linen. Superb bursts of juice on the palate are balanced by lovely acidity, notes of snapped nettle stalk and polished tannins. Dense and compelling. About $50.

Contino Reserva 2009

 

ContinoReserva.resize.editA single-vineyard wine from the CVNE stable, made by the brilliant Jesús Madrazo. Very fine, deep briar and black-cherry aromas open to ripe soft tannins and mouthwatering acidity; the pitch-perfect palate of blackcurrant and blueberry hints at sweeter red berry fruit. Sharp, juicy balsamic finish. Long and opulent, it would be perfect with rack of spring lamb. About $35.

Ontañón Vetiver Rioja Blanco 2013

The barrel cellar at Bodegas Ontañon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ontañon

The barrel cellar at Bodegas Ontañón. Credit: Copyright 2015 Bodegas Ontañon

Another fine, dry, mineral white Rioja in the modern style, courtesy of Ontañón. Very pure with sharp, bright acidity, a hint of florality on the nose and a textured pear-skin palate. Defined, structured, brisk and intense — a food wine. About $12.

Luis Cañas Gran Reserva 2001

Luis Cañas

Bright, smooth, leathery nose, with some smoke and sun-warmed wood. Powerful sour plum and spice notes on the palate, along with intense linear tannins. There’s nothing big or brash about this wine from Luis Cañas — it’s got a superbly fresh, zesty length, yet it’s very austere and elegant. Excellent. Hard to get hold of but worth searching out as an example of just how well Rioja can age. About $40.

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004

Rioja Alta

Pinot-like lightness of hue; earth, compost and potpourri on the nose. Ripe blueberry-fruit palate with hints of leather; round, soft tannins. Very restrained with subtle length — a fine and delicate classic brought to you by La Rioja Alta. About $50.

Gómez Cruzado Reserva 2008

Gomez Cruzado

Voted champion in the United Kingdom’s 2013 Wines from Spain awards, Gómez Cruzado’s fine Rioja has an oak-sweet nose with vanilla and white pepper; ripe black fruit; and a powerful, dry length. Very fine. About $25.

Finca Allende Rioja Tinto 2007

The Finca Allende estate in Briones. Credit: Copyright 2015 Finca Allende

The Finca Allende estate in Briones. Credit: Copyright 2015 Finca Allende

A modern style from Finca Allende, aged in French oak. Autumnal briar and hedgerow nose with hints of herb, followed by a midpalate loaded with fine dark fruit; smoke; leather; and rich, old cigar box. Luscious, elegant, complex. About $26.

Bodegas Roda Sela 2011

Sela

Established in 1987, Roda produces, from its stunning winery in Haro, some of Rioja’s most compelling reds. Don’t miss the magnificent Cirsion, but start with the entry-level Sela, with its voluptuous nose of violet-scented black fruit, velvety tannins and palate of dark cherry and plum. Modern Rioja at its best. About $33.

More from Zester Daily:
» Rioja on the cusp
» A Spanish spring value
» Spain’s Montrasell wine seduces under a French alias
» Trouble with Grenache

Main photo: The barrel cellar at Marqués de Cáceres. Credit: Copyright 2015 Marqués de Cáceres

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Galicia on Spain's Atlantic coast is a land of scudding clouds, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner is so dramatically different from any other part of the Iberian Peninsula, it can be hard to imagine it belongs to the Spain of popular imagination, characterized by intense heat, smoldering flamenco dancers and blockbuster red wines.

This is Atlantic Spain, with the famed pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela at its heart, a land of scudding clouds, emerald-green pastures grazed by some of the country’s finest beef cattle, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines.

Wines from here are principally white, with the racy, zesty Albariño variety in pole position, closely followed by peachy Treixadura and full-bodied, mouth-filling Godello. Many vines are more than 50 years old, plants which — thankfully — no one thought to tear out when more fashionable “international varieties” began to make inroads into Galicia. Some red wine is also made from local specialties, with names such as Caiño, Brancellao and Sousón.

In the coastal Rías Baixas region that stretches all along the western edge of Galicia, the climate is cool and humid. Rain falls heavily and persistently, and vines are trained high on pergolas suspended between chunky, head-high granite posts, as if gathering up their skirts to keep them out of the water and the mud. This is Albariño country par excellence — at least 95 percent of vines planted here belong to this now-voguish variety.

Inland in the Ribeiro region, it’s a different story. Here, where rainfall is half that of the coastal regions, midday summer temperatures routinely reach into the 100s, with a marked difference between midday and nighttime temperatures, an important element in the production of quality white wines. Vines are stacked on steep, well-drained terraces that rise above the three rivers that traverse the region (Avia, Miño and Arnoia) and equipped with drip-irrigation systems to combat water stress.

The region’s trump cards, according to Pablo Vidal, technical director of DO Ribeiro, include a range of distinctive grape varieties, great granite-rich terroirs and a climate that is significantly less humid than the coastal region. Ribeiro has been on a roll since the 1990s, when a number of local visionaries determined to resurrect the area’s long-established but lost reputation for fine wine and set about reclaiming terraces, restoring dry-stone walls and vineyards and planting new vines.

Here are seven estates in Galicia whose wines are worth seeking out. Some are in the cooler coastal region of DO Rías Baixas, others are inland in DO Ribeiro. Check for your nearest supplier of wines from Galicia.

Casal de Armán

Casal de Armán's limited edition Finca Os Loureiros, Ribeiro, Galicia -- note the bay leaf motif (loureiro, in Galician) on the label. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Casal de Armán’s limited edition Finca Os Loureiros, Ribeiro, Galicia — note the bay leaf motif (loureiro, in Galician) on the label. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Casal de Armán is a 20-hectare (50-acre) estate in the heart of Ribeiro, founded 16 years ago by four brothers — José, Javier, Jorge and Juan — of the González Vázquez family. The eminently quaffable, entry-level Casal de Armán white (“our visiting card,” says José) is made mainly from Treixadura with a dash of both Godello and Albariño, while Finca Os Loureiros, their prize-winning, single-vineyard white, features the straw-gold, peachy Treixadura in starring role and is aged in French barriques.

Finca Viñoa

Finca Viñoa's superb four-grape blend, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Finca Viñoa’s superb four-grape blend, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Finca Viñoa is an impressive new venture with vineyards set high above the River Avia, which flows south through Ribeiro and into the Miño, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal. Rows of impressive terraces have been carved out of the granite hillside, which is streaked with seams of schist. Here they have planted Ribeiro’s four signature grapes, Treixadura, Albariño, Godello and Loureira, which go to make up Finca Viñoa’s single, satisfying white blend, recently tipped by Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson as one of her top festive white wines for the holidays.

Coto de Gomariz

A range of Atlantic red wines from Coto de Gomariz, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A range of Atlantic red wines from Coto de Gomariz, Ribeiro, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Also in Ribeiro is Coto de Gomariz, an impressive 28-hectare (62-acre) estate whose owners have devoted the past 30 years to resurrecting historic sites, acquiring new plots and restoring swathes of terracing. Lately they have adopted some biodynamic practices — a tough call in Galicia’s predominantly cool, damp climate. Surprisingly (because Galicia is known for its white wines), reds traditionally outnumbered whites in Ribeiro. The estate is now flying the red flag once more with a super range of new-wave, Atlantic red blends, alongside its impressive collection of full-bodied whites.

Quinta de Couselo

Parasol pines and pergola-grown vines at Quinta de Couselo, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Parasol pines and pergola-grown vines at Quinta de Couselo, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Quinta de Couselo winery is housed in a gorgeous stone pazo, or manor house, at the southernmost end of the Rías Baixas, watched over by a pair of parasol pines, which are featured on its elegant labels. They make two alluring, aromatic white blends, Quinta de Couselo (winner of an award for the best white wine in Galicia in 2014) and Turonia, in which Albariño’s angularity is fleshed out by discreet amounts of Loureira and Treixadura.

Zárate

Centenarian vines in Zárate's El Palomar vineyard, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Centenarian vines in Zárate’s El Palomar vineyard, Rías Baixas, Galicia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Zárate is a family-owned bodega in the small seaside town of Cambados, self-styled capital of Albariño and home to the Festa do Albariño, a lively street party held annually the first Sunday in August in honor of its now famous local grape. The entry-level Albariño is a pure delight, while the single-vineyard El Palomar, grown on ungrafted centenarian vines and trained in traditional style along pergolas supported by granite posts, has greater complexity and elegance.

Pazo Baión

A glimpse inside the cellars at Pazo Baión, Rías Baixas, Galicia: "new wine in an old setting." Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A glimpse inside the cellars at Pazo Baión, Rías Baixas, Galicia: “new wine in an old setting.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Pazo Baión is a magnificent 30-hectare (75-acre) estate just south of Santiago, whose origins go back to the 16th century. After a succession of owners, including most recently an Argentine drug baron operating off Galicia’s coast, it was confiscated by the Spanish government and sold at auction to the Condes de Albarei group. Investment in the property has been impressive and includes renovation of the vineyards that surround the house, installation of spanking-new cellars and a superb, architect-designed tasting cellar. “New wine in an old setting” is the device of manager Xavier Zas. They make a single, fragrant, fleshy Albariño with wonderful mouthfeel from its six months spent on the lees.

Pazo Señorans

A table set for a tasting at Pazo Señorans. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A table set for a tasting at Pazo Señorans. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Pazo Señorans is one of Galicia’s most immaculate properties, complete with its own superb hórreo (granary), a private chapel and cypress trees, all three of which are necessary components for a property to qualify as a proper pazo. Owners Marisol Bueno and Javier Mareque and their four children together run the 21-hectare (52-acre) estate, once a kiwi plantation and now a noted center of Albariño excellence. Choose between the entry-level Pazo Señorans (lovely rose petal nose, good structure) and the Selección de Añada or vintage selection, a special cuvee from selected grapes (mineral, spicy and long-lasting).

Main photo: Galicia on Spain’s Atlantic coast is a land of scudding clouds, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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A woman uses the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.

As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.

Using the app

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Federico Bomba, founder of www.bioculture.it, demonstrates one of the original art videos on the app. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.

Go on a cultural pilgrimage

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Artist Giacomo Giovannetti explains the concept of the www.bioculture.it app against the backdrop of the ancient hilltop village of Elcito, about 2,600 feet (800 meters) above sea level. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The app follows the walking journey — a kind of contemporary cultural pilgrimage — undertaken by six young multimedia artists to discover the landscapes, traditions, organic food and wines of the region. As native-born Giacomo Giovannetti explained, the aim was not just to reference the past but to “use a contemporary language and our experience of working around the world to tell the story of our land. Le Marche is little and unknown, but big in inspiration.” To video artist Fabrizio Carotti, the landscape brings peace and concentration by allowing artists time to expand and breathe. Carotti makes an interesting point, “Italy is too often bowed down by its historic past, it makes it hard for us to look to the future. Sometimes, we have to go abroad to have a view of what is contemporary, but we want to tell our own stories in that way. Modern art can be a route to rediscover our old art by giving it another point of view.”

Sample the local foods

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Typical “zero kilometers” antipasti in Le Marche, as served at the Pietra Maula agritourism restaurant near Castelraimondo. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a  sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.

One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.

Local artisans

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic beekeeping near Matellica. The acacia honey is particularly good. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.

Organic traditions

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The organic Aurora vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.

Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects.  They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”

Notable wines

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Offida Rosso DOC Baccofino wine from Paolini e Stanford winery, a member of the Terroir Marche organic wine producers group. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica put Le Marche on the wine map years ago, although not always in a good way, thanks to the distinctive green amphora-shaped bottles. Since then, however, it has reclaimed its good name and become one of Italy’s most distinctive whites. It is far, however, from being the only fine DOC on the block. It is worth seeking out, for example, Falerio dei Colli Ascolani, as well as Offida Rosso, Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno. Pecorino has also seen a great rise in popularity, made with 100% of the eponymous varietal (no one seems sure which came first, the grape or the cheese).

The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.

Meals, family style

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The www.bioculture.it artists of Le Marche share a homemade country meal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.

End of a journey

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Sunset from the hilltop town of Maiolati Spontini. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.

Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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Faugères is one of the smaller appellations of the Languedoc, and yet it punches above its weight for the diversity of the origins of its wine growers and the quality of their wines. Among the 50 or so growers you will find people from Australia, Ireland, England, Catalonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, not to mention other parts of France, such as Normandy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Alsace.

For the 2014 vintages, there were four new wine estates. Only one of the newcomers is from outside the region, but all four have taken quite different paths to reach Faugères and all bring individuality to their wine making. So far they have only made one vintage in Faugères, but the first tastings bode well for the future. It may be too early to know much about their wines, but their passion and energy — and some early tastings — hint at good things ahead.

Nicolas Maury: Branching off from the cooperative

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Winemaker Nicolas Maury of Mas Nicolas. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Nicolas Maury

Let’s take Nicolas Maury. His father, Philippe, is president of the cooperative of Faugères, as was his grandfather, but Nicolas felt that it would be more rewarding to make his own wine. His father agreed to rent him 4.5 hectares that could easily be released from the cooperative contract. I jokingly suggested that they might be the family’s best vineyards, but Nicolas shrewdly observed that as all their grapes went into the cooperative vats and were blended with other growers’ grapes, they actually had no accurate idea of the taste of the wine from their own vineyards.

He discovered their flavor for the first time in 2014, with a lightly peachy white wine based on Viognier and two reds, one kept in vat and intended for early drinking, and the other aged in barrel, from 100-year-old Carignan vines as well as some Syrah. They provide a satisfying contrast; the first has some appealing fresh spicy fruit while the oak aged wine is inevitably more structured with firm peppery flavors. Nicolas’ label is illustrated with a quince flower as the name of his father’s estate is Domaine de Coudigno, and coudou in Occitan, the local language of the Languedoc, means a quince, while Coudigno is a place where quinces grow.

Jérôme Vialla: An adopted heir

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright Rosemary George

Jérôme Vialla is a winegrower’s son, but without any family vineyards. His grandparents had vines on the coastal plain, but they were sold to divide the proceeds among their heirs, and his father now runs Domaine Valensac in nearly Florensac. Jérôme has worked for another coastal estate, Domaine de Pommière, which he described as a factory. He wanted to find more interesting vineyards up in the hills away from the plain. Chance took him to the Faugères village of Fos, where he met his neighbor, an elderly wine grower, who was retiring with no children to follow, so Vialla stepped in and now has 20 hectares planted with the usual five grape varieties of Faugères, namely Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

When I met Vialla in May 2014, his cellar consisted of several holes in the ground, but as yet no bricks and mortar. He achieved a miracle in completing the cellar just in time for the harvest. In 2014 he made five wines: a fresh, herbal white from Carignan Blanc, a crisp rosé and three qualities of red wine. Two are kept in vat, one with lightly spicy fruit, and the second more substantial; the third wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir, is aged in barrel, making for some red fruit and a tannic streak. The name of Vialla’s estate, Domaine Epidaure, relates to his wife’s career as a pharmacist, as the city of Epidaurus was an important center of ancient Greek medicine.

Sébastien Louge: A Languedoc outsider

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge of Domaine de l’Arbussèle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Sébastien Louge does not come from the Languedoc, but from Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrénées. He studied in Toulouse and Bordeaux and has had a varied career as a winemaker, including a year at Cross Keys in Virginia, as well as working in Madiran and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before coming to the Languedoc, to Domaine de la Grange in Gabian, a village that adjoins the appellation of Faugères. But he wanted to do his own thing, and like Jérôme Vialla, met an elderly winegrower who was looking for somebody to take over his vines. Louge now has 10 hectares and in 2014 made four wines under the label of Domaine de l’Arbussèle.

There is a rosé, but no white, and three reds. Envol Rouge is the entry level, with easy fruit; Authentique comes mainly from old Carignan, and the name is a reference to the fact that Carignan was the original variety of Faugères. The wine is quite firm and structured, balanced with some spicy fruit. The oak-aged cuvée, Revelation, is based on old Grenache Noir, with a streak of tannin balanced by ripe liqueur cherry fruit.

Olivier Gil: Love and wine making

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Adèle Arnaud and Olivier Gil of Mas Lou. Credit: Courtesy of Mas Lou

Olivier Gil has local roots — not in Faugères, but in the nearby village of Tourbes. His father is a member of the cooperative there, producing mainly white grapes for vin de pays. Oliver, however, wanted to make red wine and an appellation, so he looked for vines in Faugères and bought a tiny cellar in the center of the village. He learned his wine making at Montpellier, where he met and fell in love with his partner, Adèle Arnaud, who was also studying wine making. (She comes from the Gers in southwest France and has no other history with wine.) They traveled in South America and worked in Collioure before settling in Faugères. I met them the day before they bottled their first wines, under the label Mas Lou.

The names of their various cuvées all recall their South American experience, with Selva, the rosé, for the Amazonian forest. Angaco, the first red, is where they stayed and worked; Aksou refers to special Bolivian weaving; and Tio, for the oak-aged wine, is the god of the potassium mines. Olivier said that he looked for elegance and concentration in his wines, and for supple tannins, and that is certainly what he has achieved with his first vintage.

Main photo: The wines of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

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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

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

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia's wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia’s wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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 Valle dell’Asso 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

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 400 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

 

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Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock

“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

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Whoever sells you oysters is required to keep the tags documenting their origins on hand. Ask to see it and snap a photo to capture the details. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

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?

By proxy.

“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

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Everything you need to tackle oysters: a dish towel, mignonettes, an oyster knife and a bottle or three of your favorite wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

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

aret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Portland’s Oyster Social, recommends eating the first oyster of the day unadorned, or with just a sip of wine to chase. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

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

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

Sommelier Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines and Jaret Foster of Oyster Social teach a seminar on pairing oysters and wine overlooking the Brooks vineyards in Amity, Oregon. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker

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.

Classic Mignonette Sauce

–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods 

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

1 tablespoon course ground black pepper

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/2 cup sparkling wine

Salt to taste

Directions

Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.

Yuzukoshō Vinaigrette

— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social

Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters

Ingredients

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

Directions

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   

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The main dish was Parmentier. 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 Mourvedre, it had aged beautifully, presenting a homey tapestry of dried red fruit and herbs which married seamlessly with the Parmentier. Credit: Copyright 2015 Federation des Producteurs de Chateauneuf-du-Pape

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.

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

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In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

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.

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.

Expert ampelographer

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

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.”

Mistaken identity

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 Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It's also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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.

Defining characteristics

Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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.

Merlot

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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.

Malbec

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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

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