Rambling in the Piedmont (part 1). . .

I was invited to speak at a four-day festival in Barolo, where Italy’s best wine is made, and of course jumped at the chance. It was all slightly nutty, called Collisioni (collision) for good reason: Music (Jamiroquai and some Italian rap groups), literature (Ian McEwan, David Sedaris, V.S. Naipaul, and Michael Chabon—I’m still trying to imagine reading “Telegraph Avenue” in Italian), and wine (a group of us from Decanter magazine, doing talks and tastings).
       I was talking about Italian food and wine, trying to explain how Italian-American cooking is a genuine, separate aspect, and making a comparison between, for example, New York’s Little Italy Sicilian—red sauce, etc.—and San Francisco’s North Beach, based more on pesto sauce and with maybe a little more refinement (that was the subject of my first e-book this year, “The Flavor of North Beach Revisited”). Since Liguria is a neighbor, right down the road south from where we were and reeking of basil, the audience seemed receptive to the shout-out.
       I was mainly there to promote my newest e-book, “The Wine Lover Cooks Italian,” and I solved the problem of its having no hard, physical existence by waving around a copy of the original book and exclaiming “revisita!” Don’t know if they got it, but when I finished, I was given a wheel of local cheese, known as Toma, which is very good. I’ve certainly had worse wages. (It was a gift from the local cheese-makers’ association—someone there had read the book, and they were very pleased that I’d included three Piedmont versions in the cheese chapter.)
       Wine? Wonderful everywhere we went (and we got around), and some of the best was made by female winemakers. I especially liked the Dolcetto from Pira & Figli, which Chiara Boschis labels “no oak, no Berlusconi.” Delicious, and good advice. And a nice discovery, a lovely dry white from a heritage grape called Naschetta, being revived by several young winemakers. I tried Rivetto’s--one of those wines that’s serious but also makes you smile. Quite auspicious. For information on the festival, have a look at www.collisioni.it. More wine notes to come soon.

French dirt

They're suddenly going all Napa in French wine country. The Cite du Vin visitors' center in the city of Bordeaux is up and running and looking good, and some chateaux, famous for being closed most of the year, are actually welcoming a few visitors. Now, Beaune has announced that a visitors' center will be built there (a Burgundian friend of mine, on hearing the news, said "But why? We thought WE were the visitors' center!")
       It's just starting. Burgundy recently applied for UNESCO World Heritage status (as did Champagne), but was turned down in favor of the ancient cave paintings in the Ardeche (there's only one natural site chosen each year). Both will re-apply next year. And they'll have company: the Conseil des Grands Crus Classes en 1855 is submitting the world-famous--and controversial and, many say, outdated--classification for the same status, though, as a list can't be "natural," it will have to be entered in the "cultural" category. There's no word yet on whether this enshrinement, if it goes through, would make the listing permanent. If it does, though, I may submit a shopping list from the Intermarche near Barfleur in Normandy, which also contains a lot of wine, but honors as well the local fishermen, rabbit ranchers, cheesemakers, fruit and vegetable growers, sausage makers, and bakers--surely a wider cultural, and even natural document.

It's all Greek to me? bring it on!

Here’s serendipity: We were on vacation in Greece, and the owners of our small hotel* had scheduled a wine-tasting with their friend (and now mine) George Skouras, owner of a very modern winery in Nemea, in the hills of eastern Peloponnese; we’d driven through the vineyard area, but didn’t stop. Next time, we will. We attended the tasting as a courtesy, and were extremely glad we did.
       George is a heartily affable fellow, but several of the wines were even more eloquent. He explained that most of his vineyards are more than 400 meters above sea level, with one just over 1,000—“the mountains are the refrigerators of our land,” he said, collaborating with the sea breezes (often brisk) to insure ripeness at the right times. Some of his wines are Rhône varieties (Syrah and Viognier), but George was pouring the Greek varieties, which made an excellent case for themselves as well as for the terroir:
       Moscofilero is bottled under its varietal name, a dark pink grape that makes an aromatic, crisp white wine—wildflowers and the merest hint of lime (he called it “joyful acidity,” and he had a good point there); Grand Cuvee Nemea 2007 is red,100 percent Aghiorghitiko, firm and slightly tart (red as opposed to black, cherry), undoubtedly benefitting from being grown at 970 meters altitude; Megas Oenos 2008 is the same grape, blended with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in new French oak but not overtly or intrusively oaky—both the oak and the Cabernet are smoothly integrated; Synoro 2008 is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Aghiorghitiko, beautifully balanced and deliciously complex (cassis, a bit of mint, vanilla), silky and rich, finesse itself, and a nicely lingering aftertaste—a really lovely wine, and well worth seeking out.
          During the week we were there, we drank the local wine, from the Peloponnese, often simply from carafes, impressed and very happy to be. Greece has gone far beyond the old Retsina days, well into modern times, but in its own delightful way. . . Another reason to go back.
        *The lovely hotel, in Karadamili, is at: www.anniska-liakoto.com

Cat got your tongue?

Among other things, May 17th is Sauvignon Blanc Day, with tastings to be held all over the world (the PR people hope), a multitude of tweets (unsurprisingly), and good will toward the flavour once described as "cat pee on a gooseberry bush." I daren't think what's next. Grenache Day was okay--the grape lends itself to a lot of different expressions and, playing well with others, would never be accused of any derivative of "savage," so a lot of the events organized in different places across the globe were charmingly goofy. Riesling week, similarly, had its charms and was a useful reminder of an often-neglected gem. Sauvignon Blanc? No amplification needed. . .

Ready, Aim. . . Sip?

The news that the National Rifle Association has a wine club, known as the American Cellars Wine Club, caused quite a flurry, with some pushing (Yalumba, furious at being included, demanded its wines be withdrawn, and The Wine Club Directory canceled its recommendation) and some pulling (the NRA removed an open letter on its website from its vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, which explained how wine purchases “directly support” the group, before overhauling the wine-club home page, so that participating wineries were no longer listed upfront; listings, and Wine Spectator-style tasting notes—Beringer Cabernet: “licorice, chocolate, roasted herbs, sweet oak and various blue and black fruits”--were only available to members).
       Given that the NRA is noted for strident militancy, their reaction seemed a little surprising (though not quite as surprising as the image of “good ole boys” who “drove their Chevvies to the levee, drinking. . . Chardonnay”?). The company that handles the actual sales, Vinesse, in southern California, supervises a number of wine clubs, and also went a little quiet—their page for the American Cellars Wine Club doesn’t mention the NRA at all.
       Now there’s another story, according to The New York Times: 250 members of Congress belong to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and are recipients of funds and hospitality from the Congressional Sports Foundation, a charity that supports research on wildlife and conservation, as well as  lobbying against gun control; members of the caucus have frequently introduced pro-gun legislation. Major donors to the charity are Remington, Winchester, Walmart (a major retailer of guns), and of course the NRA. Among the hospitality events where lobbyists, gun makers, and politicians mingled last year were the “Stars and Stripes Shootout” and “Wine, Wheels, and Wildlife.” Wine tastings are regular features of the charity, it seems, proving at last that wine has finally earned a solid place in American life. Assyrtiko and AK-47s, anyone?

I'll never forget whatsisname. . .

I’m reading, enjoying, and learning a lot from “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Oldest Pleasures,” by Paul Lukacs (W.W. Norton, $28.95), a fascinating book. The author essentially re-tells the story of wine from a skeptical point of view rather than the usual romantic angle, adding science and commerce to the mix to provide some new assessments to an old story.
       One such note is ironic: In the Middle Ages, people re-discovered an ancient Roman idea, making wine from dried or semi-dried grapes—the alcohol was higher, which helped preserve the wine, and sweeter, which offset the variable flavors and inevitable spoilage. The wines were highly prized, and in honor of the tradition, they were known as “Romneys.” Surely, the lifelong teetotal recent former Presidential candidate (remember him?) will appreciate that this particular irony didn’t turn up during the campaign. . .

Being perfectly Frank

Cleaning out some old files, I came across an article I wrote a bit more than a decade ago, which included some remarks from my old friend Frank Prial, the distinguished columnist for The New York Times who died last year. What he said is still relevant:
          "Class and price have come to mean the same thing, unfortunately, and too often we see people afraid not to spend a lot of money on ‘fine wine.’ In many cases, price and availability are the defining elements of ‘quality.’ . . . ‘World-class,’ if we must use the term, should apply to all categories at all levels—a good $10 bottle that’s the best in its class is world-class to me.’”
          Amen.

Politics and taste. . .

President Obama made a splendid speech at his inauguration, though questions remain: Will the Republicans be more cooperative? Will gun owners in New York accept the invitation of the attorney general of Texas to move there? And, most vexing of all, who decided to feature one of America’s least distinguished sparkling wines (Korbel) at the inauguration lunch, and then compound the off-centeredness by choosing its bone-dry version to go with dessert? (Wine lovers snickered at the choice on esthetic grounds, and the French complained about the use of the word “Champagne,” to some cheap shots from politicians and pundits unaware that they’re legally, as well as morally, obliged to do so.)
       Meanwhile, it was great to see New York wines getting their due: Tierce Dry Riesling 2010 from the Finger Lakes, and Bedell Cellars Merlot 2009 from Long Island were also poured. The last time I visited both areas, a few years ago, I was pleasantly amazed at the quality of a wide range of the wines, especially these two varieties. I don’t know about New York Senator Charles Schumer’s epicurean credentials generally, but he made a good call when he muscled them on to the menu.
copyright 2010-2017 by Brian St. Pierre