The Thanksgiving wine conundrum …

Every November, wine columnists warn us about the difficulty of pairing wine with the traditional turkey & trimmings we feast on at Thanksgiving. It’s all silly, and most writers hate the theme. I know I do. I’m not looking forward to writing one this year (and still may not), partly because I don’t know how I’d improve on the one I wrote last year. Here it is, posted Nov. 12, 2016, on washingtonpost.com:

All together now – deep breaths. Relax. Stay calm. Don’t sweat about the wine for Thanksgiving.

Yes, it’s time for my annual reminder that you have much more to worry about than selecting wine for the holiday feast. There’s the menu, the timing, the seating arrangements around your loud relative who won’t stop talking even as he’s stuffing his maw with your food.

To be honest, the great national anxiety over what wine to pair with turkey is a hob-gobble-goblin invented by wine writers desperate to stuff an article with sage advice to a logical question – what wine is best with the bird? A cottage industry of wine snobbery developed around the concept that turkey is a wine killer. Nonsense. A turkey is just a big chicken! Whatever you drink with chicken will do just fine with turkey.

(I’m not making this up. Hugh Johnson, the venerable British wine writer I profiled a few weeks ago, published his first article in the British edition of Vogue magazine in 1960 – about pairing wines with Christmas turkey. The article is included in an anthology, Hugh Johnson on Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling.)

The wine/food conundrum for Thanksgiving is the plethora of dishes, spices, and flavors on the table and on our plates, all at once, rather than in orderly courses.  Too often our food-wine pairings become food-protein pairings, and we forget the sauces, spices, textures and well, vegetables, that are also part of our dining experience. (Beware the canned cranberry sauce.)

So my usual advice: Open one of everything. Or at least, a wide assortment or wines that will match well with the variety of dishes on your Thanksgiving table. Find wines you enjoy at prices you can afford for the occasion. For example, pinot noir is a classic favorite because of its ability to play well with a variety of foods. But you may not want to buy premier cru Burgundy unless you’re having turkey dinner for two. Feel free to offer a nice pinot from Oregon or California.

Don’t think of Thanksgiving as a wine challenge but an opportunity. Make a game of it – open several wines of various grapes and styles, then compare each of them with every dish on your table. While you’re avoiding conversation with your relatives, you’ll give yourself a clinic in wine and food pairings. What you learn will carry you through until next year’s Thanksgiving.

Here’s what you should look for: Bubbles go with everything. Sparkling wines, from champagne to Spanish cava, are extremely versatile. The bubbles are palate-cleansing and refreshing, especially with salty or deep-fried dishes.

Fruity white wines, such as Riesling or Gruner Veltliner, are also friendly with a wide variety of foods and flavors. From bone-dry to sweet, Riesling can match nearly every dish’s acidity, spiciness or texture. If umami could be quantified, Riesling would be off the charts, it’s so classically versatile with a wide variety of foods.

If you prefer red wines, pinot noir, barbera and gamay are classic pairs with a wine variety of foods. Syrah and nebbiolo are also good choices on the heavier end of the spectrum. More powerful reds such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot can clash with your buffet due to their tannins and astringency.

This year, I’ll be thankful for friends and family, as well as this wonderful country of ours. And I’ll be especially thankful there is plenty of wine in my house.

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It’s not about the #wine.

This is a slightly revised version of my column published October 12 on washingtonpost.com.

As I write this, fires continue to spread across Northern California’s wine country for a sixth day, and it is still impossible to estimate the full impact of this catastrophe. Just this morning, new evacuation orders were issued for parts of Sonoma and Healdsburg, and a new fire erupted in Lake County. People are still fleeing their homes and desperately trying to protect their families, pets, and livelihoods.

If you’ve ever visited Napa or Sonoma counties, you know someone affected by this disaster. Maybe you have friends or family there, or a favorite winery you visit and order wine from every time you’re in the area. Perhaps you remember that cheerful woman who poured you a taste at Signorello winery in Napa’s Stags Leap District or at Paradise Ridge winery near Santa Rosa, where you lingered to watch the sun set into the Pacific in the distance. Perhaps that waiter who so enthusiastically explained the daily specials and the wonderful zinfandel available by the glass at Willi’s Wine Bar. Signorello, Paradise Ridge and Willi’s are gone, as are many more of our favorite places to stay, visit or taste.

On the second morning – Tuesday, October 10 – NPR aired a piece by a KQED reporter who visited the Atlas Peak area of Napa County, where the first fires broke out late on the evening of October 8. She spoke of million-dollar homes consumed, “Bentleys burnt to their metal frames,” and an infinity pool “cracked by the intense heat of the flames.” I shouted at my radio: What about the winery workers who live in the valley, or the migrant laborers who came north for the harvest? A mobile home retirement community in Santa Rosa was decimated, as were several stores and fast food restaurants.  The charred hulks of cars in the news photos were Corollas and Civics, not Bentleys. Those hotels that burned down, the Hilton and the Fountaingrove Inn – rich people didn’t stay or work there. This is a calamity for everyone, not just the wealthy.

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Defining terroir with technology

I was thinking of writing a column exploring the concept of “terroir” and its different meanings for wine lovers and winemakers. But a quick search of my past columns on washingtonpost.com reveals this from February 2015. Been there, done that. Not that I don’t repeat myself on occasion, but …

Terroir may sound romantic, but to some winemakers, it’s precise

 

Terroir is a word with almost mystical charm for wine lovers. And no wonder: It’s French, and therefore romantic. It allows us to stretch out the second syllable with that raspy, guttural sound – “ter-HWAHH” — that speaks of sophistication and savoir faire. And it has no real definition, so we can use it any way we want without fear of contradiction. Terroir is what we want it to be.

[2017 interjection: In the redux, I was going to describe the second syllable as “somewhere between a pirate’s “arrrrrr” and a lecher’s “rrrrwowrrrr.”]

Terroir may lack definition, but it has meaning. When most wine lovers bandy the word about, we mean “a sense of place.” That is to say, a wine shows terroir if it tastes like it came from somewhere. See what I mean? It makes perfect sense.

Terroir is part of a romantic, anti-modernist, anti-technology vision of a lonely artisan winemaker toiling in her vineyard to produce a wine that could only have been grown there — not halfway around the world, not even on the next hillside.

Many wines taste as if they could have come from anywhere, products of modern technology that strips wine of not only any faults but also its character. Terroir is part of a romantic, anti-modernist, anti-technology vision of a lonely artisan winemaker toiling in her vineyard to produce a wine that could only have been grown there — not halfway around the world, not even on the next hillside.

[ Four wines to help you through the winter chill.  Remember, this was published in February.]

Bordeaux winemakers define terroir not with romance, but with precision. In the Médoc, along the left bank of the Gironde River, the top of a “slope” might only be a few meters above sea level, yet that detail might determine whether a vine’s grapes go into a chateau’s premier wine or a second label.

At Château Pichon Baron, a renewed micro-focus on terroir has influenced gradual changes in style of the wine, says Jean-René Matignon, Pichon Baron’s technical director and winemaker.

“We are more focused on the best terroirs of our chateau and trying to be very precise in our selection of grapes,” Matignon said during a recent visit to Washington. “It’s very important for our blend.”

Pichon Baron is a historic estate, a “second growth” in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux chateaux. Since 1987 it has been part of AXA Millésimes, a company that owns several wineries in France and Portugal. Under AXA’s stewardship, the vineyards have been improved and a new modern winery built. The efforts have borne fruit, as critics have cited improvement in Pichon Baron’s wines over the past 15 years.

Until 2012, the winery was known as Pichon-Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville. Simplification of the winery’s name signals perhaps the completion of this transformation. (I’d rather have a mouthful of the wine than a mouthful of a name.)

As Matignon and his team have studied their terroir, the blend has increasingly emphasized cabernet sauvignon. That might not seem like much; Pichon Baron is in Pauillac, prime cabernet country. And cab has always dominated, forming about 65 to 70 percent of the blend depending on the year, with the rest usually merlot and cabernet franc. With the 2010 vintage, though, cabernet sauvignon became nearly 80 percent of the blend.

“Technology helps us be more precise in our selection of grapes and in blending our wines,” [Matignon] said. “It gives us more control.”

Matignon was in Washington to present several vintages of Pichon Baron at a dinner for Bordeaux lovers organized by Panos Kakaviatos, a Bordeaux fiend and contributor to Decanter magazine. As we tasted wines from 2000 to 2010, with 1989 and 1990 thrown in to show how the wines age, Matignon explained how two factors have contributed to changes at Pichon Baron. The first was the market: The decline of the traditional Bordeaux negociants market over the past 30 years shifted power away from brokers and back to the chateaux, “giving us flexibility to make wines the way we want to,” he said.

And the second factor? Technology. Pichon Baron’s new winemaking facility, completed in 2006, allows Matignon to use smaller fermentation tanks to isolate wines from various parts of the vineyard, in turn allowing him to choose only the best parcels for the final blend. Matignon even refers to this as “inter-parcel selection.” If you throw all the grapes into one big vat, such distinctions are lost.

Matignon also invested in the favorite toy of winemakers everywhere, an optical sorting table. This device scans newly harvested grapes before they go into the fermenters and identifies and removes any that are not fully ripe. It is faster and more reliable than a team of trained humans.

“Technology helps us be more precise in our selection of grapes and in blending our wines,” he said. “It gives us more control.”

In the hands of a skilled winemaker, technology is not the enemy of terroir but the instrument of its finer expression.

Originally published on washingtonpost.com on February 21, 2015.

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Chatting up the best and worst of cheap wines

I had fun yesterday taking a long lunch break from my day job to participate in the weekly online chat for The Washington Post’s Food section. My feature published that day on rating the best-selling U.S. wine brands inspired a lot of questions. We discussed the merits of oaked and unoaked chardonnay, cheap wine vs. not-so-cheap wine, and well, you get the idea.

Readers also asked about the best wines from the southern hemisphere (Argentine Chardonnay or South African Chenin Blanc, anyone?), the rise in alcohol levels, and why cheap imported wines are consistently better than domestics at the same price level.

No discussion of local wines really, though I managed to work in a Virginia Chardonnay. We’ll have to work on that for next time.

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Vintage perspective from Hugh Johnson

One of my favorite books to pick up whenever I have a few free moments (seldom) or need inspiration for my wine writing (often) is Hugh Johnson on Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling, published last year by Mitchell Beazley. It’s a collection of articles from the writer I learned most from in my early wino days, peppered in the margins with observations and bons mots from his perspective of today.

I picked up the book again this weekend and laughed aloud at Johnson’s introduction to a thumb-sucker piece from Wine Times in late 1989, called “Into the Nineties: A Spot of Prophesy.” On one level, it’s just a clever way to worm himself into his piece, but it also is a vivid example of how our love for wine influences our outlook on life.

“I confess I never quite know what the media are driving at when they use a decade as shorthand for a mood, a style, or a way of living. We are supposed to nod wisely when a journalist says how very ‘sixties’ someone is. I’m too dim to get it. To say that some splendid person is a proper ’61, on the other hand, or some wretch is a mouldy little ’65, strikes me as a very acceptable shorthand. A vintage year and its quality are historical facts that gradually permeate our wine-loving consciousness. The great ones stay there for a very long time.”

Yes, they do, Hugh.

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Wednesday wine recommendations, 8/30/2017

Let’s contrast the Old World and the New this week, with pinot noirs from Burgundy and California’s Central Coast, plus rosés from New York and Spain. And just for good measure, an Australian Riesling.

*** = Exceptional, ** = Excellent, * = Very Good

Baileyana Vineyards Firepeak Pinot Noir 2014

*** Great Value

Edna Valley, California, $24

One of Central California’s best pinot noirs, year in, year out, doesn’t disappoint in 2014. It’s rich and silky, with black cherry and blackberry flavors and a long finish. Alcohol by volume: 14.2 percent.

Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at Cairo Wine & Liquor; on the list at 1789, P.J. Clarke’s. Available in Maryland at Rodman’s (White Flint), Waugh Chapel Wine & Spirits in Gambrills; on the list at Isabella’s and Reina in Frederick, Redwood in Bethesda. Available in Virginia at Arrowine & Cheese in Arlington, Balducci’s (Alexandria), Grape + Bean (Rosemont), Swirl & Sip in Fairfax, Unwined (Belleview); on the list at Gentle Harvest in Marshall, Parallel Wine Bistro in Broadlands, Salamander Resort in Middleburg.

 

Domaine Nicolas Rossignol Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2014

**-1/2 Stars

Burgundy, France, $35

From a revered Volnay producer, this entry-level Burgundy is anything but basic. It offers lively dark fruit flavors, grounded in earth, with an appealing herbal note emerging on the finish. This is a harmonious and lovely wine. ABV: 13 percent.

Distributed by Elite: Available in the District at Bell Wine & Spirits, Cork Market, Daily 14 Mart, Metro Wine & Spirits, Modern Liquors, Rodman’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Whole Foods Market (P St., Georgetown), Wide World of Wines; on the list at B Too, Brasserie Beck, Cork Wine Bar. Available in Maryland at Beards Hill Liquors in Aberdeen, Grand Cru, Mt. Washington Wine Co., Wells Discount Liquors and Wine Source in Baltimore; on the list at Parts & Labor in Baltimore, Petite Cellars in Ellicott City, Tino’s Italian Bistro in Columbia. Available in Virginia at Arrowine & Cheese and Grand Cru in Arlington, Balducci’s (Alexandria), Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville, Slater’s Market in Alexandria, Union Market in Richmond, Whole Foods Market (Arlington, Ashburn, Fairlakes, Vienna); on the list at Delia’s Mediterranean Grill in Alexandria, Evo Bistro in McLean, Pomme in Gordonsville, Ten Penh in Tyson’s Corner.

 

Pikes “Traditionale” Riesling 2015

**-1/2 Stars

Clare Valley, Australia, $22

Lovely fruit-basket flavors of tart apple, pear and quince, with a springtime herbal note. The lively acidity and great finish make this a fine example of New World Riesling. ABV: 12 percent.

Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley, MacArthur Beverages; on the list at Bangkok Joe’s, Doi Moi. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s in Bethesda, College Square Liquors in Westminster, Cranbrook Liquors in Cockeysville. Available in Virginia at Oakton Wine Shop, Unwined (Belleview).

 

Bridge Lane Rosé 2016

**-1/2 Great Value

New York State, $17

Bridge Lane is the second label of Long Island’s Lieb Cellars, known for stellar sparkling wines. This scintillating rosé bursts with zingy strawberry and cantaloupe flavors, with a tang of minty mango on the finish. ABV: 11.9 percent.

Distributed by Hop & Wine: Available in the District at Glen’s Garden Market (both locations), Yes! Organic Market (Georgia Ave.). Available in Virginia at Altura Wine & Gourmet and Planet Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria, Cheesetique (Shirlington), Mom’s Apple Pie in Occoquan, Wine Styles (Montclair).

 

Usoa de Bagordi Rosado 2016

** Great Value

Rioja, Spain, $10

This organic rosé, made from 100 percent garnacha (grenache) grapes, is juicy with strawberry and raspberry flavors and an appealing bitterness that makes the finish refreshing. ABV: 13.5 percent.

Distributed by Dionysus: Available in the District at A. Litteri, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Mom’s Organic Market, Rodman’s; on the list at Estadio. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s (Bethesda), Bradley Food and Beverage in Bethesda, Finewine.com in Gaithersburg, Mom’S Organic Market (Rockville), Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Balducci’s (Alexandria, McLean), Mom’s Organic Market (Alexandria, Arlington, Herndon, Merrifield, Woodbridge), Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).

Originally posted on washingtonpost.com on March 25, 2017.

Posted in Australia, Burgundy, California, Eastern US, New York, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Rosé, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wine doesn’t Trump politics …

Our nation’s politics have gone sour, like wine left exposed too long to oxygen. A case in point: My column this week in The Washington Post Food section takes a look at Trump Winery, near Charlottesville. I conceived the article as an objective look at what Kerry Woolard, the general manager, and winemaker Jonathan Wheeler have done to improve the wines. After all, since Donald Trump bought the former Kluge Estate winery at a bankruptcy auction in 2011 and installed his son Eric in charge, the company has reinvested in the vineyards, constructed new production facilities, and refurbished several other buildings on the estate. And the wines have improved.

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Trump Winery winemaker Jonathan Wheeler (l) and general manager Kerry Woolard in the tasting room.

But it is impossible to look at Trump Winery without the filter of politics. Hours after I visited and spoke with Woolard and Wheeler, neo-Nazis and white supremacists held their torch-lit march across the University of Virginia campus. The next day, protests and counter-protests over a Confederate statue turned deadly. And a few days after that, the furor over President Trump’s reaction to the violence engulfed the winery when Trump bragged that it was “one of the biggest” in the nation.

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