Somms Offer Romantic Value on V-Day

In 2013, I turned to some D.C. sommeliers for their advice on pairing wines with a romantic dinner out on Valentine’s Day. Sadly, several of these restaurants have since closed, and of course somms move around as opportunities arise. But their advice still holds, in case you are dining out this Valentine’s Day.

As Moez Ben Achour approaches a table at Marcel’s, Robert Wiedmaier’s haute restaurant in the District’s West End, he is already assessing his clients’ thirst. On Valentine’s Day, the sommelier knows his task can be even more challenging.

“Everybody has already spent money on the gift, maybe even an engagement ring, and they are splurging on the food. So I know the bank will be low,” Ben Achour says. “They’re looking for a wine that offers romance and value, especially on the sparkling side.”

Ben Achour’s recommendation for the budget-conscious romantic is a sparkling wine from Burgundy: the Michel Sarrazin Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé, made entirely from pinot noir grapes. While it doesn’t come from the Champagne region and cannot legally carry that prestigious name on its label, the wine is made in the same method as champagne. Cremant de Bourgogne is the insider’s secret in sparkling wines, because it often approaches champagne in quality without commanding the same price. And, of course, the Burgundians know a thing or two about pinot noir.

Local sommeliers I spoke with about Valentine’s Day choices struck similar chords: bubbles for celebration, rosé for everyday romance, modestly priced picks for young lovers. Richard Dunham, who directs the wine program at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, one of the Washington region’s most romantic dining spots, suggests half-bottles to provide appropriate variety and set the mood. He’s bold enough to suggest a sweet champagne, such as the Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, to start the meal.

“It pairs well with our appetizer of Roquefort cheese and caramelized apple,” Dunham says. For chateaubriand for two, he recommends a half-bottle of Shafer Merlot 2009 from Napa Valley. “Its supple elegance will have you gazing not only into the glass but at each other,” he says, as though he were pouring romance rather than wine.

That meal for two would cost about $350. More-budget-minded diners could substitute two glasses each of Jean-Baptiste Adam Cremant d’Alsace, another French sparkling wine, and a 2009 Bordeaux with the whimsical name of Chateau Baby, and pay about $250.

Scott Clime, wine and beverage director for the Passion Food Hospitality group — which includes DC Coast, Acadiana, District Commons and Passionfish, among others — also thinks of rosé: the Gruet Rosé non-vintage sparkling wine from New Mexico, which he describes as “a garnet-colored wine with a floral bouquet of strawberry, raspberry and cherry.” At $17 retail, it is a terrific value. He recommends an Argyle Riesling 2010 from Oregon and a Vina Cobos Malbec 2010 from Argentina  — both at less than $20 a bottle retail — to round out the meal. [NB – He most likely meant the Vina Cobos Fellino. And Acadiana and DC Coast are now closed.]

If you’re dining at CityZen, sommelier Andy Myers might serve you sparkling wine at the end of the meal. [NB – Well, okay, nobody is dining at CityZen anymore, and Andy might favor a Spanish wine now that he is heading up the beverage programs for José Andrés’s Think Food Group of restaurants.]

“If the couple’s young, playful and romantic, I go for moscato d’Asti,” Myers says. “We will pour you a glass for your birthday or anniversary. It’s a great wine with dessert: sweet, and the alcohol’s not too high.” He recommends a moscato called Annalisa, which retails for a modest $12.

Moscato needn’t be limited to the end of the meal, he notes: “My mom drinks a glass the minute she sits down.”

Should you be dining at Plume in the Jefferson Hotel, sommelier Michael Scaffidi has splurge suggestions for the end of your Valentine’s meal. If all has gone well, opt for a glass of Madeira. If you are having the wine pairings with your menu, the Love Letters dessert will be paired with On the Wings of Dawn, a sweet wine from Austria made by Heidi Schroeck. [NB – Michael has since decamped for New York City, but Plume is still noted for its Madeira selection.]

The wine carries a double-entendre for lovers, Scaffidi warns: The name for this particular style of dessert wine, means “escape” in German.

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An Ode to Sweet Wines

Here’s another of my Valentine’s Day columns for The Washington Post, from 2011:

We don’t drink enough sweet wines.

There are several reasons for that. We have been taught that “dry” wine is more sophisticated. Truly luxurious sweet wines that taste like nectar stolen from the gods can be ridiculously expensive, so thrift has something to do with it. Moderation comes into play; that extra bottle might seem intemperate. And there’s satiety, that fullness and fatigue that says: “Enough! Let’s just finish the wine already on the table.”

Many bottles of dessert wine have made the trip from my cellar to my dinner table, only to make the return journey unopened. I love a good sticky, but it remains a special-occasion treat.

Valentine’s Day is a worthy special occasion for ending dinner with a sweet wine. The good news: Your dessert tipple doesn’t have to swallow most of your dinner budget. In fact, delicious sweet wines are made around the world, many in unusual styles. Your valentine is special: Why not treat him or her to a unique wine?

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An Unconventional Idea for Valentine’s Day Wine

Writing 52 weekly wine columns a year can be challenging, but those of us lucky enough to have such a gig have certain advantages. Such as, regular wine occasions that faithfully come up each year. (I’m thinking of you, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve!) One of these is Valentine’s Day. It’s a special occasion fraught with all sorts of anxieties, and wine shouldn’t be one of them. So over the years, I’ve tried to take that tension out of the evening. This week, I’ll repost some of my columns from over the years. You’ll find me repeating myself, but some of these themes are timeless, or at least annually relevant.

Here’s my first Valentine’s Day column in The Washington Post, from February 2009. I highlighted Brachetto d’Acqui, a slightly sweet, fizzy red from Italy that is dynamite with chocolate cake.

Some wines are meant to facilitate conversation rather than dominate it. They need no analysis, they reveal no undertones of earth or leather, they inspire no deep philosophical musings on the meaning of life. Rather than bring a thoughtful furrow to your brow, they prompt a quick, easy smile. And like characters in a romance novel who are destined to be together, some wines seem to have been created specifically to mate with a certain type of food.

Chocolate cake, meet Brachetto d’Acqui.

There really isn’t much to say about Brachetto d’Acqui. It’s a slightly sweet, fizzy, light red made from the Brachetto grape near the town of Acqui in Italy’s Piedmont region. Its bubbles are softer, with less atmospheric pressure to the gas, than champagne’s, and it typically is low in alcohol, at about 6 percent. Think of it as a red version of Moscato d’Asti, the effervescent white dessert wine made from the Muscat grape.

And it is a perfect match with most chocolate desserts, including cakes, brownies, cookies and especially any confection that includes fruit or a fruit sauce. That makes it an excellent choice for Valentine’s Day, a connection not lost on winery marketing departments eager to conjure images of a Niagara Falls honeymoon suite with rose petals strewn over the heart-shaped vibrating bed.

Stick your nose into a glass of Brachetto, and you might think you’re smelling a rose. Freshly picked strawberries still warm from the late spring sun come to mind as well. Sniff again, and try to pick out a hint of orange peel or clove. Take a sip: The wine is as light and fruity as its aroma suggests. Now take a bite of your chocolate dessert, followed by another sip of the Brachetto. The wine should grab on to the fruitiness of the chocolate, and any fruit flavor from cherries or raspberries in the dessert or its sauce will be magnified. Once those flavors fade, your palate will be refreshed by the gentle wash of the bubbles, and you’ll be ready for more chocolate.

Brachetto has its cousins: other sweet, effervescent reds from northern Italy that show similar characteristics and also pair well with chocolate. Vineyards near the Piedmont hamlet of Casorzo produce cherry-scented fizz from the Malvasia Nero grape. Casorzo wines tend to be darker in color than Brachetto and a little heavier in weight. Other frothy reds are made from Lambrusco, a grape that unfairly still brings to mind the cheap Italian jug wines popular a few decades ago. Other areas of Piedmont make a sweet wine from Brachetto, labeled Birbet. All of these wines are best consumed young and chilled.

But Brachetto d’Acqui is the leader of this pack, and the leading Brachetto is Rosa Regale, made and imported by Banfi. It is widely available in the United States at about $18. Bright ruby in color and strawberry scented, it is simple, delicious and fun. Coppo “Passione,” imported by Winebow, is more exotic: darker in color, with a red-orange tint, and redolent of orange peel and cloves.

Last week I recommended late-bottled vintage port with chocolate. Port and chocolate match power with power. Brachetto and other light, fizzy Italian reds take the opposite approach, countering chocolate’s intensity with bright fruit and acidity. Both are excellent choices, but the Brachetto might have an extra advantage as a Valentine’s Day choice: Any leftover wine will be good with breakfast.

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Traditions and Rituals

Wine lovers develop certain habits that may seem strange in polite company. These customs and rituals are part of wine appreciation. They are also easy to ridicule, and become the essence of wine snobbery to the uninitiated. Yet they (almost always) serve a role in enhancing our enjoyment of the wine.

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Tasting wine isn’t always this formal a ritual.  Photo: Alfredo Bartholomaus

We will hold our glass up to the light and gaze intently at the liquid within as if it holds the secret of life. In truth, it may only hold the secret of the next few minutes, but this visual inspection allows us to evaluate the wine’s clarity. Similarly, by tilting the glass against a white background, we can assess the wine’s color and discern a clue to its age and condition.  The color of the wine around the rim changes with age, and if the wine (white or red) seems murky, it may be over the hill or have been stored improperly and exposed to heat.

This visual inspection is also why we hold the glass by the stem; fingerprints on the bowl are unsightly, and our hands may warm the wine. True wine geeks will hold the glass by its foot, with or without the pinky extended. This shows sophistication but requires care in performing the next tasting ritual – The Swirl. Holding the foot of the glass gives less control, increasing the risk of clothing stains and social embarrassment. (I speak from experience.) Swirling the glass becomes second nature to wine lovers – we’ve been spotted swirling water glasses in unguarded moments. Yet it serves two purposes. First, it completes our visual appreciation as we note how the wine cascades down the side of the glass. Try this experiment: Take two identical wine glasses and fill one with water no more than a quarter to the top. Then pour an equal amount of red wine into the second glass. Swirl each glass. The water will simply fall back to the bottom, but the wine should form rivulets that flow more slowly, as if clinging to the side of the glass. These rivulets are called “legs” or “tears,” depending on whether you’re feeling sexist or emotional. A wine that has “nice legs” will have good body and will taste richer, perhaps with more alcohol, than one that leaves little to behold after a good swirl.

The swirl’s second purpose is to release the wine’s aromas into the bowl of the glass so we can perform the next step: Stick our nose in the glass and inhale deeply. (Swirling and sticking one’s proboscis below the rim are two very good reasons not to fill the glass too high!)

Finally, after all this rigmarole, we actually put the wine into our mouth. But we don’t swallow it at first. Rather, we gargle it. By aerating the wine and swishing it noisily around our gums, we theoretically release more of the wine’s flavors. We certainly annoy anyone around us. A sommelier friend of mine chews his wine so noisily, I had to ask him to be quiet when we were judging a wine competition together. I could hardly hear myself taste.

Even after we swallow (or spit if we’re at a wine tasting), we’re not done. There’s still the “Oooh – ahh” of sucking in air to enjoy the wine’s leftover flavors that linger in the mouth. No, we’re not Army veterans. This is yet another way of accentuating the wine’s flavors.

And then, maybe we’ll smile. But there’s still one more ritual: We pull out our smartphones and post a photo of the wine on social media. Facebook and apps like Delectable or Vivino make it easy to catalog and brag about the wines we drink. For what’s the point of enjoying a wine if we can’t share it?

(A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post on May 25, 2015.)

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Toasting Independence Day with Madeira

With the heat and humidity of July here in the Mid-Atlantic, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest a fortified wine to toast Independence Day. But the Founding Fathers, up there in “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia,” as John Adams described it in the musical 1776, toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. In this piece, an edited version of which was posted on Washingtonpost.com on June 30 and published in print July 4, I discuss Madeira’s role in our Revolutionary history with two experts. There’s wine history here, too, including possibly the first point score given to a wine by an American wine writer.

Bartholomew Broadbent was befuddled. For nearly three decades, the British-born wine importer with the famous name (his father is Michael Broadbent, famed wine writer and auctioneer) had tried to convince American consumers that Madeira played a fundamental role in U.S. history, and therefore deserved a place of honor on their dinner tables.

Broadbent boasts of bringing Madeira back to the United States in 1988 for the first time since Prohibition, that dark age when our collective knowledge of the pleasures of the grape were systematically erased from our national consciousness, leaving us with a taste for bathtub hootch. He used history as his sales pitch.

“It always amazed me that Americans had no idea their Founding Fathers drank more Madeira than any other wine,” says Broadbent, founder of Broadbent Selections, based in Richmond, Va. “I’d tell audiences that George Washington drank a pint of Madeira every day, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both toasted with Madeira. And I’d explain that Betsy Ross, while sewing the flag, had a side table with a glass of Madeira on it. The only artistic license I allowed myself was to say, ‘That’s probably why she saw stars!’ The rest is all true.”

Last November, at the national conference of the American Wine Society, Broadbent again preached the Madeira gospel and chastised his audience for not remembering Madeira’s role in their nation’s history. A woman in the audience raised her hand. She was a retired history teacher. “She said all references to alcohol are removed from American history texts,” Broadbent recalls. “Now I know.”

Well, not every reference to alcohol is excised, of course. I recall learning about the Whiskey Rebellion, Skid Row, Carrie Nation and the Temperance movement, and of course Prohibition. Only the positive references to alcohol are banished from U.S. history books.

We can forgive Broadbent’s adorable fixation on the role alcohol played in early U.S. history, and maybe even the native British nationalism of this naturalized U.S. citizen. “As Englishmen, we don’t know a lot about American history, but there are two things we know for sure,” he says. “One is that Madeira played a hugely significant role in American history, and the other is that Canadians did not burn down the White House in 1814.”

He’s certainly right on that first point. Aaron Nix-Gomez, a software engineer by trade and a wine historian by avocation, whom I have written about before, recently wrote extensively about Madeira’s impact on early U.S. history on his blog, Hogsheadwine.com. The series was based on a talk Nix-Gomez gave in April to the Stanford Wine Society, sponsored by Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Company, another leading importer of Madeira, and Roy Hersh, author of the blog “For the Love of Port.”

Nix-Gomez described how Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would order directly from shippers on the island of Madeira, specifying the color, body and sweetness they desired. (These characteristics were achieved through blending and, well, perhaps some additives.)

And Madeira may have been the first wine to be rated with a point score. John Drayton, a justice of South Carolina and a wealthy plantation owner, sent a 110-gallon “pipe” of Madeira to an acquaintance in 1768, noting that “It is a silky fine flavored wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” The point score may have seemed natural to Drayton, Nix-Gomez notes, as his fortune came from growing rice, which was rated according to the quality of its milling.

In a 2017 post, Nix-Gomez catalogues George Washington’s Madeira purchases during the spring of 1776, when the Continental Army was defending New York City from the British. The captain of Washington’s security detail bought as much Madeira as he could from merchants and collectors in the region on Washington’s behalf, usually in lots of 11 dozen bottles. When British troops captured the house of one of Washington’s suppliers, in Flatbush, they drank the Madeira stash in a “complete drunken frolic,” Nix-Gomez writes.

During his presidency, Washington developed a fondness for “India Madeira,” or wine shipped from the Portuguese island of Madeira to India. Wine lovers were discovering that Madeira improved by “cooking” in the holds of ships, where the pipes were used as ballast. (Modern Madeira is exposed to heat while it ages to replicate this effect.) Washington was willing to pay a premium for his wine to guard against fraud, because he had once purchased an entire pipe that was filled with water. But his two pipes of India Madeira were so precious that he painstakingly had them transported from Philadelphia to Virginia when he retired.

“George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon, where he drank the last glass just months before he died in 1799,” Nix-Gomez wrote.

So here’s a toast to Madeira, the wine of American Independence.

A basic primer on Madeira, the indestructible wine.

 

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More on Portugal

Having taken an informal sabbatical from blogging for a while, I neglected to post my interview in the Portuguese news magazine Sabado. You can find it here. Google Translate does a fairly decent job of rendering the Portuguese text into English, though it sometimes makes me sound more philosophical and Yoda-ish than I really am. There’s a short video in English, with Portuguese subtitles, that covers most of the interview. I can’t figure out how to share the video here, unfortunately.

Sabado

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In Vino Veritas

In vino veritas, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote. In wine is truth. It’s an old Latin phrase making fun of people who speak their minds under the influence of alcohol. The quote is buried in a rather hilarious and frightening chapter of Pliny’s Natural History devoted to chronicling drunkenness in Roman society.  In this context, the saying is a warning against excessive drinking, and is often followed by in aqua sanitas, or in water is health.

Today, in vino veritas has been embraced by wine lovers as a positive, or at least a nuanced, statement. There is always that negative connotation of loose-lipped inebriation, but it also hints of a more positive truth, hidden within ourselves and revealed through wine’s mystical quality to elevate our spirit, as the wine we take at communion brings us closer to God.

On two consecutive evenings, on two sides of the country, and with two different groups of people, I experienced this positive truth in wine. The first occasion was a wedding. About a hundred people gathered at District Winery in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the union of two men in a hilarious and unconventional ceremony that combined elements of Greek drama and slapstick comedy with traditional religious ritual. Wine flowed as freely as the tears, and there was cheese and charcuterie amidst the camaraderie. Throughout the reception and dinner and dancing that followed, total strangers bonded over their mutual affection for the happy couple. (At one point, I heard someone exclaim, “I want to meet his sister!”) And I became closer friends with people I deal with regularly but rarely in person.

Wine was secondary to the occasion, of course, but we cannot conceive of such an event without it. Wine is the drink of celebration. We raise our glasses to toast each other, commemorate the past and welcome the future. It helps bring us together. Wine never tastes quite as good when we drink alone — it benefits from, even as it contributes to, communion.

Twenty-four hours later, I was in northwestern New Mexico with about a dozen colleagues. A long day of travel included airport delays, a flat tire in the middle of the desert for one of our team, and the kick of driving along the old Route 66. After all the work was finally done, several of us gathered at our hotel to unwind and debrief on the day’s events.

There was wine, of course. One colleague brought a bottle of Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 from Napa Valley, a gift from his father. I contributed a Limerick Lane 1910 Block Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Argentine malbecs from Gascon and Alamos, procured at local supermarkets, were offered and quickly emptied. There may also have been Crown Royal. Wine is supposed to be paired with food, but all we had was some cold gluten-free pizza and the makings of bruschetta, leftovers from a mid-afternoon dinner. They disappeared quickly, but fatigue was our main course.

And we feasted on conversation. After recapping the day, talk moved on to work and life. We didn’t say about much about the wine. Instead, we ragged on bureaucracy and bragged of our individual accomplishments, as well as those of our children. Before long there were several conversations going at once, as colleagues became friends and an ordinary work trip became an experience that we will remember for years and may ultimately be mentioned at our retirement parties. No one was drunk, but we relaxed and laughed and communed as wine transformed our fatigue into energy for a few hours. When the bottles were empty, we cleaned the room and called it a night, happy and ready to do it all again the next day.

Life and work drove these days, not wine. But wine added its charm and a measure of honesty. It was a voice in the celebratory choir of the wedding, though not the melody. It played magician to a small group in a hotel meeting room, changing a long and weary day into a memorable evening. On a more mundane level, wine can help us celebrate minor victories as well as major life events, or lift our cares and spirits when we are down.

In vino veritas.

A different version of this article was published on WashingtonPost.com in late May 2018. 

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