Thursday, December 31, 2009

And now for something completely different...

Imagine this: fill a bowl with luscious fresh wild berries, a nice brambly-tart mixture with a little snap to the flavor; then sprinkle the bowl with a dusting of fresh-cracked black pepper; then go one step further and add a judicious dash of Chinese Five Spice powder. Let it marinate for a little while. You'll have a very close approximation of Ruche' (it's pronounced "ROO-kay").

Or you could simply go out and buy a bottle of Ruche' di Castagnole Monferrato.

What's that, you say? Well, you can be forgiven if you aren't familiar with this grape variety. Although it has been in the Piedmont for over a hundred years, it has only been available for local consumption until very recently. It's now a DOC---but comprised of only a scattered 100 acres, so it's not all that easy to find here in the US.

One you can find, though, if you're lucky, is the 2008 il Cavaliere from Cantine Sant'Agata, located in the village of Scurzolengo in the Asti province of Piedmont, one of a handful of villages where Ruche' is produced.

There has been a surge of interest in Ruche' of late, and these producers have committed themselves to reviving and expanding the production. And it's a good thing, because there is literally nothing quite like Ruche'.

Its refreshing that neither the local farmers nor the academic ampelographers seem to know quite what Ruche' is or where it originated. One theory is that its an indigenous grape that, somehow, was only comsumed locally and never expanded beyond a few historical acres. Another theory proposes Ruche' as a grape that was brought in some years ago, perhaps from France, as an experiment that never really went anywhere.

It's a light to medium-bodied red wine, usually with a hefty dollop of tannin to give it a bit of roughness, but with a decided aroma and flavor of wild berries and black pepper and overt spice.

We served our bottle with a hearty pot of Spanish Brown Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard, Sauteed Mushrooms and Onions accompanied by crusty Sourdough Garlic Bread thoroughly studded with whole cloves of garlic, and it was a lovely match, with the earthiness of the lentils cozying up to the rustic flavors of the Ruche', and the spiciness stepping up to the pungency of the garlic.

The il Cavaliere is the lowest ranked (and priced, at around $16) bottling of Ruche' made by Cantine Sant'Agata, and it is clearly made for the short term; but for what it is, it is delightful, and the spicy element is unique and mouthwatering. I would imagine it would be perfect with some Asian foods too.
Scurzolengo, home to Cantine Sant'Agata, is typical of the lovely and sometimes steep rolling hills of the Asti part of the Piedmont. As you drive through the region you'll traverse beautiful, quiet valleys with clusters of farm buildings and vineyards carpeting the slopes; then you'll arrive at the peak of a ridge, and dip down into yet another scenic valley.
The region is timeless and seems remote, somehow preserved by the vineyards and farms that are scattered throughout the hills, with small villages dotted here and there. Yet this is the home of one of the great wine regions in the world, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco, Barbera and Dolcetto, the luscious sparkling Asti from the Moscato grape, Arneis, Gavi, and others. Of these, Ruche' is a miniscule part; but it has shown itself worthy of being preserved, and we're fortunate that it's now available here.

A Quick Virtual Visit to Friuli

We had some friends over to the house for a casual dinner, and we wanted to put out some unusual (for them) wines, so I plucked out a bottle of Girolamo Dorigo Ribolla Gialla 2008 from Friuli.

I generally love the wines of Friuli, that region tucked up into the far northeastern corner of Italy, and especially that golden-yellow delight Ribolla, a grape that appears to be indigenous to Friuli, Slovenia and the slavic regions. This 2008 from the serious and determined Dorigo family, which has been on a thirty year campaign to improve their vineyards and their wines, is a wonderful example of the variety and the region.

Ribolla can be made in either a quick-drinking fresh style or in barriques for longer aging. I like both, but this fresh version was particularly successful with our apps and Dungeness Crab course. Since we serve our Dungeness as simply as possible to emphasize the delectable natural sweetness (steamed, cracked and served up for messy eating, and why bother with sauces when crab is this good?), the Ribolla Gialla, made in stainless steel, quickly fermented, and delivered right to the bottle without delay, was a perfect foil for the food.

The Dorigo has a delicious mouthwatering squirt of fresh lemon juice and zest, with refreshing acidity and a stony mineral layer underneath. Light and racy, it never overwhelms the crab and leaves the mouth fresh and ready for another sip or bite.

There's lots of talk these days about "food wines", probably in an attempt to convince people that all wines are food wines---even when they are over-extracted steroidal jam fruit bombs.

The Italians have a genius for producing real food wines as a matter of course however. Might be because the alcohol listed on the bottle was 12%, it was the right grape grown in the right area, and there was no effort to manipulate and sculpt the wine into something bigger than it was supposed to be? So while perfectly good as a cocktail or aperitif wine, this Ribolla Gialla really shines when the food hits the table.

And as a bonus, it's moderately priced. You should be able to find this one in the $14--20 range. Unless you live in one of the gouging states or Canada, of course. :^)

The Dorigo family makes a full range of typical Friulano wines, and they generally do a great job. Their primary parcel of land, an excellent vineyard in the Collio region called Ronc de Juris (Ronc is local dialect for hill) has been 'reconditioned' over the last thirty years to maximize quality...and they have succeeded. You should also try the Friulano Bianco (Or what used to be called Tocai Friulano there, and in other places Sauvignonasse or Sauvignon Vert; never a blockbuster of a wine, but always tone perfect for seafood dishes, and a staple of tables in the Friuli, Slovenia and in nearby Venice, this is another one of those Italian genius wines).
The Collio is a fascinating region---or half a region, I suppose we should say, for the remainder of it is across the Slovenian-Italian border it shares. This part of Italy, until the end of WW I, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in actuality Slovenian in culture. After it became Italy, the border remained porous for the locals, so the Italo-Slovenes were able to propagate in and continue to make wine from both sides, and thus retain their unique cultural identity. And more important to this discussion, their unique vinous identity!

The Collio, and a neighboring sub-region called the Colli Orientali del Friuli (the eastern facing hillsides in Italian), remained isolated, un-touristy, and rarely exported until just recently, so they retained their natural style without benefit of 'internationalization' and global homogenization. So much the better for us wine drinkers!

Friuli has also managed to avoid much of the price shock that other temporarily trendy regions have gone through, so the wines remain readily affordable, even though they are not distributed as well as they should be. Still, discerning Italian wine buyers are always around, so these wines should be too.
If you're intrepid travellers, the Friuli would be a great destination. Go to Venice and sample the delights with the rest of the throng---and throngs you will find, I promise you. Then, when you're tired of that, rent a car and drive up a few minutes north, past the Piave and into the gently rolling hills of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. No more crowds, mostly locals, and a wealth of small towns and quaint little villages and wonderful scenery.

You're situated between the foot of the Dolomites (Alps) and the Adriatic sea. And if you go far enough, you'll find yourself in the intriguing Hapsburgian city of Trieste, which is a surprising treat. (If you're a coffee lover, this is also the home of Illy Cafe.)

But mostly you can just ramble around, enjoy the people and the countryside, and in addition to the wines you can sample the other specialities of the area...most notably some exceptional prosciutto made in a village nearby! Plus, there's no shortage of Enotecas for sampling the wines of the region. It's a great, and still fairly undiscovered and relatively unspoiled, part of Italy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alright, Alright. If You Really Insist...

It's the time of the year when people start thinking about Champagne. Well, sparkling wine, really, but for most people that comes back to Champagne.

After all, it is the holidays, when most of the sparkling is consumed...which is just plain wrong, if you ask me, because if you like sparkling wine, you should have it frequently. But most folks still, for some reason, think of sparkling wine as only for celebratory occasions.

So I wasn't surprised when a friend called up and asked for my suggestions. I referred him to any number of articles, and particularly Eric Asimov in the NY Times, as perfectly sound sources, probably more so than I.

Nope. He wanted my personal picks. Rather than give him a list of lists, and get all pedantic on him, I decided to go for the short and sweet. Or, at least, the short and dry. If I was going to drink Champagne...if I was going to gift Champagne to someone with superb taste...or if I was going to take Champagne or sparkling wine where I cared about what people would be drinking, here's my short list.

(Note: You should know beforehand that I prefer what they call a "Pinot Heavy" Champagne. I don't care for all that many Blanc de Blancs, which are made from Chardonnay only. So if you like your Champagne tautly crisp and light, as opposed to rich and mouth-filling and boldly flavored, you might not like my picks. Fair warning.)
Like it or not, Champagne is in a category all its own. And the Champagne that I will select without hesitation is Bollinger
Mind you, there are any number of fine Champagnes I enjoy---Pol Roger, Henriot, Charles Hiedsieck, Pierre Peters, and a number of others. But the most reliable and most consitently pleasing, the most complex and satisfying in all its elements, is Bollinger.
You have three choices with Bollinger, each with its own charm, each with its own declarative statement of style (and each reflective in price of its quality). First, there's the "house style", the non-vintage Special Cuvee. If there's any Champagne worth having as a "house champagne", it's this one.

To step up a significant notch, go for the Grande Annee Vintage Dated. It has the Bollinger signature style, but is entirely reflective of the particular year of harvest.

And for that rare and special occasion when something truly distinctive is called for, there's the Bollinger RD (which stands for Recently Disgorged). If you like your Champagne big and bold and expressive, and at the same time infinitely complex and intriguing and delicate---as oxymoronic as that may sound---then you need to taste the Bollinger RD. I'd even go so far as to list it as one of the XXX number of things you need to experience before you die. And yes, I like it that much.

If you want to stay with an American sparkling wine, again there are many choices for you. But there's only one for me, if I'm looking for the best and most consistent: Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut. This is as good as it gets in California. Mind you, you can find more expensive sparkling wines. Doesn't matter: you won't find anything better. If you want to be more impressed with good wine than with big overstated price tags, go for the Roederer Estate.
Since I now live in the lovely Willamette Valley of Oregon, I have to give a nod to a local bubbly---but it's a local bubbly that can easily hold its own with anything at it's price point in the entire world. Argyle Willamette Valley Brut Sparkling Vintage is creamy and smooth and richly flavored, a perfect balance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that showcases the best elements of both grapes in total harmony. And the sparkling is a definite labor of love for the winery, since they sell their Pinot Noir for significantly more than this blended sparkler can fetch in the market, so they're essentially sacrificing profit with every bottle they sell. How cool is that, huh?
So, those are the three: Bollinger for Champagne, Roederer Estate Anderson Valley for California, and Argyle Willamette Valley for Oregon. I promise you can't go wrong with any of these. They are as close to a sure thing as you can get with wine.

On the other hand, if it really doesn't matter, and you're just looking for a cheap bubbly that'll get you by, avoid the crap out there and do yourself and everybody else a favor: buy a bottle of Italian Prosecco. They don't cost much, they're light and lively and lemony-fresh and fun to drink. And they go great with potato chips.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Summer Dreams in Winter Rains

Of the many joys that wine has brought me over the years, one of the greatest is the connection to the land, providing a profound sense of place ...for what turned out to be some of the most beautiful places I've journeyed to and through.

So it's a particular delight on a chilly winter's night to be able to recall the hot flush of summers past with the warm glow of wine. In this case, I need go back only so far as this summer last, to remember the sights and sounds and tastes and textures of the Rhone and Provence, when I was privileged to enjoy the land, the wines, the food and the people. If any places are the summerlands, these are.

St. Tropez

The first time I visited St. Tropez, you could still see the origins of the humble fishing village it once was long ago. That's pretty difficult these days, with the incredible expansion of population (both tourists and new locals along the Provencal coast), and the rude crowds of glittery and showy over-sized yachts of the rich and famous thronging the harbor.

There's more Eurotrash and Globotrash than ever before, it seems. And many of them still cluster at St. Tropez. But then, so did we.

The 'village' still has its charms, and actually accomodates the crowds fairly well withal. The tiny narrow cobbled streets are still navigable, even along the stretches where the toniest of coutoure is displayed. And it is still fun to stroll the harbor late at night and watch the profligate cavort on their floating pleasure palaces, dancing on tables with champagne bottles in hand (and that quite literally, I might add), withered old men chuckling proprietorially over lissome young things with predatory gleams in their eyes. A free display of gratuitous consumption in front of the earthbound masses.

But there are still places... A nook here; a cranny there. A sagging portion of the old wall allowing a view of a rocky shore and a fog-enshrouded bay with sudden ships looming up in ghostly procession. An old round tower from the days of blood and pirates and king-conquerors. A couple walking along in the dim light arm in arm and thinking they were the only ones ever to love this much and this well.

And I found the same small gap leading out to a tiny, tiny beach of rock and sand, looking over the bay, with craggy islets waiting for careless ships, and in the middle of such numbers, was alone with the sea and the stones and the fog at the end of the day.

La Roubine

I love this photo for its total lack of drama, its seeming lack of any quality of structure or purpose or distinction. Without context it is merely a mass of Provencal garrigue, merely pretty at best, inconsequential at worst.

Ah, but in context, it is a magnificent and humbling picture that captures the imagination with force and grandeur. This plain little scene is the remnants, barely discernible, of the ancient Roman road from Frejus to Aix-en-Provence, traversing through the middle of the vine-studded estate of Domaine de la Roubine, one of the few Grand Cru-rated wine estates in the Provence.

You can walk along the old Road, treading on the same worn stones that clinked and sparked under the hobnailed boots of Roman legions and iron-shod cart wheels, and smell the pungent aromas of the wild thyme and rosemary and fragrant bunches of lavender that bake slowly under the sultry sun, and get lost in time. Oh, the sweep of history that has gone down this Road.

And now there is a great chateau, yes; but also a winery along the crest of the ridge where the new road runs, and in the middle of the vines a Culinary Center and Relais. And one of the gifts of the Romans, the vines in their orderly rows, lie alongside the Road that brought them here.

The Dentelles de Montmirail, Gigondas, and Saint-Cosme

When you reach the southern part of the Rhone, you can't miss the Dentelles de Montmirail. No, I mean, literally: you can't miss it. This ragged decaying range of giant stone dentifrice (they tell you the 'dentelles' means lace for the laciness of the rock, but the locals will just as quickly tell you that, yes, it does look like giant savage teeth in advanced decay) looms above the famous village of Gigondas, one of the villages of the Rhone entitled to its own appellation of wine.

And between the village of Gigondas and the Dentelles is a small and ancient vineyard, Saint-Cosme, and the hereditary owner of a family that goes back several generations and hundreds of years, Louis Barruol. Not a large man, and rather quiet and concentrated, Louis is nonetheless a man of force and presence through his quiet intensity and his natural connection to the land where he stands. He is as much a part of Saint-Cosme as the vines he tends and the wine he makes, and when he leads visitors around his place---for it is undeniably his place---he speaks with total confidence and knowledge.

He has, since he was a young child, wandered in and around the countryside, casually picking out shards of history from the soil---he has a well-maintained and fascinating museum of artifacts through the ages in the old cellar---and he has since dedicated himself to producing some of the finest and most intense wines from his estates and from the larger region.

And every day he can look up and see the Dentelles, always changing and always the same.


Almost a Disneyland attraction, flushing tourists from all over the world through its shops and restaurants, Montelimar has enjoyed affluence through the ages for its charms. If it is, as they say, "Location, location, location," then Montelimar has been particularly blessed with location, always astride a major trade or transportation route, and always having something worthwhile to sell.

Since Celtic times Montelimar has been on the hustle. Along the Rhone River, then along Highway N7, stymied for a while by the A7 autoroute (but recovering to become famous for its elaborate and unique aire, a tourist attraction all of its own), Montelimar is likely most famous for its nougat---which remains delicious, by the way---but now attracts tourists for its olives and olive oil, its spices and its fragrances. It's a fun place to visit, and there are far worse places to while away a warm summer afternoon, lolling under the arch of the old Roman bridge and tracing the path of a trolling hawk in the brilliant blue sky, and watching the mottled play of sunlight on rugged limestone escarpments. Colors are bright there, and the aromas are intense, and your senses come alive under the Provencal sun.

Hotel Bellerive, Relais du Silence, Rhone Valley

There is a small, secluded, and delightful hotel in the Southern Rhone, situated beside a pebble-bottomed river and looking out in any direction over the famous wine villages of the region. It is called le Bellerive, and it is a Relais du Silence, a lodging known for its restful nature and natural quiet repose. Bellerive has only a few rooms, and each has a lovely scenic view and a sense of solitude. There are lounging chairs scattered around the relais, and a couple of lethargic cats, and the sound of birds trumps the distant hum from the roadways in the distance.

Petit Dejeuner is on a terrazzo patio with a sweeping scenario of countryside at every glance, with sturdy thick silverware and bone china and crisp white tableclothes, and dense, dense black cafe noir with rich, thick cream and pain au chocolat to start the day.

My room is perched above the now sluggish river and looking toward the village of Seguret hunkered tightly atop its domed hilltop and gleaming dirty white in the morning sun, and as the fitful wind gusts back and forth it brings the fragrance of the wild herbs and the tangy whiff of the famous sun-baked garrigue, and I know that soon I will be at the foot of Seguret in the elegant vineyard of Domaine de la Cabasse, and enjoying the rich, dark, spicy red wines from the vineyards I am gazing over.
Hemingway was right, but not only about Paris, and not just for young men. The best places are all moveable feasts. And once savored they can be manifested again, in the mind's eye, and bring the indolence of summer to life, even in the chilly rains of winter.
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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Things I Learned This Year: Pt. 5--Buying Strategies

So you want to beat the odds, eh? Want to improve your wine chances and thumb your nose at Sturgeon's Law? I can help.Mind you, I can't (well, more like won't) give you a list of wines. I'd simply be telling you what I like right now, and what I like is not necessarily going to be what you like. And by the time you figure that out, you'll be out a few bucks and generally pissed at me. Besides, why should I do all the work and you get all the pleasure? Go out and find wines for yourself.

I am, however, perfectly arrogant enough to tell you some good places to look to better your chances. As long as you remember we're dealing with vast generalities. Sorta like you'd be asking a tout who's going to take the Derby this year, okay?

Where are your odds the poorest? That's easy: where they turn out the most volume without benefit of history or long tradition. And remember, please: what I'm talking about here is not bad wine; I'm talking your chances of getting well above average wine that has a distinctive style or flavor or quality that puts it in an elevated category.

Australia: Your chances in the US of getting an above average or out-of-the-0rdinary wine from Australia are abysmally low. Sorry. But you have to understand, they made a conscious effort some years ago to seize the world public popularity on wine (by volume) by exporting the most innocuous stuff they made and pricing it so punters couldn't afford not to give it a go.

Their success---and it was an unparalleled success, have no doubt there---was their failure unfortunately. There's tons of good Australian wines. Most of it doesn't come here to the US, though. And what does is usually pricey as hell and hard to find and difficult to distinguish from the category of average swill. No one does average swill better than the Aussies, and it's hard to go wrong if swill is what you want...but you told me you were looking for better.
If you're still looking at Australia, though, you can find good wines. My favorite place for those? Hands down, Clare Valley; best all-around region to me, with startlingly good dry Riesling on one end and gorgeous but not overdone, over-spoofed, over-loaded Syrah at the other, with a shout out to Cabernet in the middle. There are other Australian areas, though they tend to have more singular focus.

The Clare Valley. Beautiful, eh? So beautiful the early settlers named it after the Clare Valley in Ireland (cue the fiddle). Turned out it was a perfect place in all respects for growing a wide range of fine wines.

Other areas: well, you know I'm going to say California, don't you? Heck, let's just say the whole West Coast. Again, great at producing average industrial wine. Spectacularly good, as a matter of fact. But the real thing is harder to find, so your chances are still looking pretty poor. But again, if you focus on certain areas, there are some delights to be had, some Sturgeonic moments of epiphany to celebrate. Anderson Valley tends to rank pretty high. So does Sonoma in general, and the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast in particular, if you're looking for cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot. Mendocino is still a haven for above average quality at reasonable prices, if only because it still attracts iconoclasts, tree huggers, and those curious 'wine-Libertarian' types. And it's still possible to find a memorable bottle of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from there.

But here the emphasis is not so much on place as it is on producer. Find a Ridge or an Edmunds St. John to follow religiously and you'll be better off.

Also, most of South America, I'm afraid, should be warily traversed. Sorry, but it's still a haven for average wines, with rare exceptions. Sturgeonly speaking, firmly in the crap-to-mediocre-to-occasionally-outstanding category.

"Okay, okay, you've told me where to avoid; now tell me where to go to get the good stuff!"

If you had been paying attention, that's what I've been doing; go back and re-read the tips I gave you. But for you, I'll give you some places where your chances are waaaay above average.

Trentino-Alto Adige. Campania. Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Piedmont, if you stick with Nebbiolo wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. I would, however, stay away from Tuscany--for as many exceptional wines as there are in Tuscany, there are considerably more average ones, and it's hard to tell the difference until you open one up. Again, within the area, Brunello would be the exception; there the wines tend to be pretty impressive, although never inexpensive.
Trento, in the Sudtirol (the Italian/Austrian Alps). Gorgeous, panoramic, and producer of some outstanding and unusual wines. Also good for skiing trips. And since it's so Germanic, a perfect place for having wine with bacon. Mmmmm!

Another hot tip from Italy would be Sardinia (which the darned natives insist on calling Sardegna).Not as well known, and not always easy to find, but great full tilt boogie reds and superb crisp, lively and aromatic whites from the Vermentino grape.

Rugged and remote (to most Americans, anyway; Europeans love to visit) Sardegna has a thriving and unique wine culture, and what makes it to our shores is usually of high quality without lots of dollar signs intact.

Slovenia: generally the ones that make it here are damned good; strange sometimes, but damned good. And since Slovenia shares a border with the aforementioned Friuli, the wines (and sometimes the winemakers) are very similar. Your odds here are surprisingly good.

Spain? A strange and wondrous place, currently undergoing a major transformational revolution in wine, and thus a dangerous minefield that shifts almost daily. Still, if you're a gambler, there's the allure of high risk-high reward.

Austria has an astonishing rate of top notch wines (well, those entering the US, anyway), whatever the price range is. Especially the whites, such as Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon, and Riesling.
Ah, the Blue Danube (which isn't blue at all; more like a silty gray, actually). But as it winds through Austria it goes past some superb vineyard land. Look for Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon and Riesling (unlike some Germans, the Austrian Riesling tends to be bone dry).

Provence (especially if you're smart enough to realize how good good rose' is, you should be so lucky), the Rhone Valley (where often even the average is above average, and in some places [Cornas] the average is so far above other places' average as the difference is between sea level and stratosphere. But my favorite for playing roulette, because it's one of the few versions where the odds are definitely in your favor, is the red wines of the Cotes-du-Rhone. For even better odds look for the Cotes-du-Rhone Villages or Cotes-du-Rhone Villages + Named Village (a selection of distinguished villages allowed to add their name to the title of the wine).

And don't forget: stay the hell away from Burgundy. They don't need your business anyway.

Things I Learned This Year: Pt. 4, Sturgeon Was A Hopeless Optimist

In addition to being one of the early grandmasters of speculative fiction (sci fi, to you regular citizens), Theodore Sturgeon is famous in the wine world for coining "Sturgeon's Law", which postulates that 90% of everything is crap.

Problem is Sturgeon was right but his numbers were way off. Both ways.

Allow me to explain.

If you're of the demographic known as the "casual wine drinker", your chances are better. Significantly better, in fact.
"Hi, I have no taste perception! Do you have a bland, featureless white wine on your list? A Pinot Grigio would be swell!"

If you're happy with most wines, and tend to think of wine as a 'pleasant beverage'; if you're content with ordering 'a chardonnay or pinot' off a list in a restaurant; or if your fall back wine when you're out and about is the ever-reliable Pinot, my friend, are in luck! It's never been better for casual wine drinkers. Right now there is more decent wine out there---good, reliable, consistent, sound, and tasty, along with pretty good value---than ever before in h
istory. There's also less spoiled, tainted, and downright poorly made wine than ever before.

So if your standard ranges from "okay" to "pretty good", you are golden, bubbie! Enjoy. Rather than a ten percent chance of getting something good, you could go as high as a positive 98%. And those are good odds, any way you look at it.

If, on the other hand, you live at the other end of that spectrum; if you occasionally induce sleep, boredom, or frustration in your friends with your incessant talk about wines; if you believe everyone wants to know about every fascinating detail of the latest obscure varietal from the most godforsaken place; if you assume that acidity and pH correlatives are or should be a given---then, my friend, you are in trouble. Your Sturgeon's Law just accelerated from 90% crap to around 98%, or the opposite of the casual wine drinker.

Sorry, your taste is just too good, and your expectations simply too high. That's what you get for being a discerning creme de la creme person.

A sad but necessary concommitant to the aforementioned "it's a great time for casual wine drinkers" is "it's getting harder and harder to break out of the mundane" in the wine world. There's more "okay" wine out there, yes. But that means it is getting noticeably more difficult to find the "really good stuff", the distinctive and declaratively excellent wines that tend to redefine your joy of wine and force you to pay attention.

Mind you, this isn't something you can't correct...or at least improve your odds. It's nothing that a huge discretionary bank account, countless hours of diligent investigation, more hours hanging around in internet chat rooms, and even potentially following false prophets and self-appointed godheads couldn't deal with.

Unless, that is, you have made the mistake of getting trapped by Burgundy. Then, it's hopeless.
This is Burgundy. It is to be avoided at all costs. If you've already made this mistake, welcome to years and years of frustration and emptied bank accounts in search of a bottle just like that bottle you had...ohh, a hundred bottles ago. Trust me on this. You'll only drive up prices further anyway, and I'm already at my limit.

But wait! There are some simple strategies that can lessen your anxiety and improve your chances. But we'll outline those in the next installment...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I learned this year... P.3: Trentino-Alto Adige

My winner of the year for "Most Overlooked and Underrated Wine Region"

Yes, you can find wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige, but not as many as you should, and not as easily as they deserve.

The basic quality level of wines from this far northern Italian region (which is really a far southern Austrian region) is astonishing. Since the area was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and didn't become "Italian" until after the First World War territorial grab---er, realignment of national affiliations---it should come as no surprise that this area is more German than Italian in wine styles, and even after 91 years, as much Germanic as Latin in its food and culture. Whether German or Italian, it's the Sudtirol, and maintains its unique identity.

When you visit the region---and you should, for it is supernally beautiful, a series of valleys nestled firmly in the Alpine mountains, and a favorite terminus of skiers---you'll notice the duality of signage here everywhere you look, for both German and Italian are authorized and often used interchangeably. You'll see the same on wine labels too.

And the topography and climate also support the Germanic theme, for this is a cool upland region in summer, with relatively short harvest seasons, and the wines tend to be braced with tingly acidity.

The Trentino-Alto Adige features some wine varieties that are indigenous and rarely seen elsewhere, and these autochthonous wines are only now asserting themselves on the world stage. Teroldego and Lagrein are trademark reds for the region, and they'll satisfy anyone's quest for robust and rustic-styled reds with plenty of flavor, spice and tannic structure. The whites are more varied, ranging from Riesling and Muller-Thurgau and Kerner in the Germanic tradition, to scorchingly acidic and nervy Sauvignon Blancs, with some taut Pinot Blancs and aromatic dry Muscats thrown in for good measure.

Another good reason to investigate the Trentino-Alto Adige is that it is still a "wine drinking" region instead of a "wine collecting" region. Thus far it is known mostly by wine geeks who chortle over the combination of unique geeky-ness (i.e., any wine you have to learn to pronounce so you can assert your dominance over other geeks), exceptionally high quality, and very reasonable price. Translation: the collectors and trend followers haven't jumped all over the region---yet---and ratcheted up the prices, so you can afford to drink the stuff on at least a semi-regular basis!

I hesitate to name names, since there are so many small producers in this region turning out spectacular wines, but I will throw two out: and oddly enough, both of them are co-operatives. Co-ops (groups of grower/producers banded together) are generally looked down upon by wine aficionados, but these are among the best producers in the region, and their quality stands up consistently...and both their wine makers have been recognized as Italian Wine Makers of the Year in the past decade!

The first is St. Michael-Eppan. These are brilliantly clear, with crystalline focus on varietal character, especially in their Sauvignon Blanc. They have different label ranges, so look for the
"Sanct Valentin" if you can find it. I'll also give a shout out for their Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder); it's topnotch wine from a largely underperfoming grape, and a testament to good winemaking.

Note the duality of language on the label. Both German and Italian are standard on labels in this region.

The second is Kellerei Tramin, and should be as widely available as any Alto Adige wine in the US market. The quality of the Kellerei Tramin wines is consistently high, and always a safe bet and a good bargain. (I wrote about the Kellerei Tramin Lagrein recently in this blog.)

But as I said, there are many, many other producers, most of them quite good, some of them superb. So your chances are good here.

If you haven't already sampled the wines of the Trentino-Alto Adige, now's a great time. And if you haven't had the wines for a while...well, get out there and expand your horizons. (You'll be glad you did.)