Wines for holiday feasts
Roast or grilled beef/lamb, rich stews: Meritage (Bordeaux blends), which tend to be more accessible due to inclusion of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, softening youthful cabernet sauvignon
Venison: Syrah from the Rhone Valley, such as Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Cote Rotie
Duck, Goose: Pinot Noir, especially Russian River Valley, Nuit-St. Georges, Corton-Renard, Pommard
Turkey: lighter Pinot Noir-Elk Cove, King Estate, Adelsheim, Meiomi
Ham: Beaujolais-Villages 2019 (cooled), dry rosés, especially rosé of pinot noir
November 2020: who would have thought....that we'd still be here, in touch electronically but not around the table, which I miss more than ever. I can't say I'm looking forward to the holidays--reluctant to fly just yet and even if I could -- how to visit with friends at safe distance, outdoors, in the dead of winter? "O wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" (Shelley, Ode to the West Wind) As the saying goes: Hope Springs eternal.
Meantime, I continue to draw on my cellar, with such as this: Charles Krug 1992 Generations Meritage blend, a nice surprise with its vibrant fruit, smooth texture and very appealing finish, a tribute in part to its forty percent cabernet franc with its attractive red fruit flavors. 1992 was an average vintage, a lesser one by most counts, but as ever, selection of best lots can lift the quality of such wines as it did for this 29-year-old red.
And more recently...
Merry Edwards 2009 Pinot Noir, Georgann Vineyard, Russian River Valley. It was quite good when I opened it, but the next night it was dynamite! Smooth, rich in texture, flavors of ripe summer berries tinged with a subtle accent of smoke and cinnamon. Great with roast cornish game hen.
Wine in the Time of Pandemic
The way things have changed--it's so strange. I didn't realize quite how much it means to me to be able to gather round a table with friends, enjoy a good meal and some good wines, often older vintages from my cellar, good conversation that gets livelier as folks relax, feel at ease, open their hearts and minds in a convivial setting---safe.
I'm reminded of something one of our most esteemed gastronomes, M. F. K. Fisher, wrote: "There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk."
Now it's not possible....and it appears this will go on for weeks more. Weeks--if we're lucky. I'm reluctant to open fine bottles when I can't share them. I can't drink a whole bottle myself--or don't like to--because I like to feel well the next day; I haven't had a real hangover since my first terrible one some forty years ago (mint juleps, too many, too fast on a hot summer night in New York). Sometimes older wines, those from the 1990s, and 1980s especially, don't taste as good the next night--they've lost a little fruit, the tannins, acids and alcohol are more prominent. Not always, of course; sometimes they taste better. Many wines in the twenty to thirty-something age range have surprised me (see B.E.'s Discoveries). I like to catch these wines at their peak, or as near to it as I can figure.
Tonight, however, I'm celebrating. A publisher has accepted a book I co-edited representing several years of work. Because of the reasons stated above, my everyday wines with dinner are usually moderately priced but carefully chosen, selected because--near as I can tell--they are honest, soundly made, with few additives.
And I've made an important discovery. Tonight, with my braised lamb shank (grass-fed), I opened this:
Chateau Ste Michelle 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington.
Oh my! It is lovely. Almost 33 years old. I retrieved it mid-afternoon, stood it upright and decanted it about 45 minutes before sitting down for dinner. Deeply aromatic, with ripe dark berry aromas, it was vibrant in flavor--those same dark berries shining through, utterly smooth, with a long and lingering aftertaste of bright fruit, a hint of oak. So well integrated. Wonderful rich color.
I could cry--not to be able to share with friends I know would enjoy it. A little over half a bottle left--we'll see how it is tomorrow night. The aroma, I must add, persists, even in the empty glass.
Normally, I have wine with dinner most evenings--a couple of glasses, anywhere from 8 to 10 ounces; like I said, I want to be alert in the mornings at my writing station. Usually one of the moderately priced wines I've recommended on my website as Best Buys or Wine Buy of the Week.
Last week I opened an even older wine: Jordan 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley in Sonoma. I tasted this wine in barrel and liked it so much I split a case with a friend when it was released in 1983. I suspected it was over the hill at age forty, having followed me through various cellar locations. Admittedly, it was past its peak; ten years ago it would have been more vibrant. My wine notes indicate I liked it very much in the fall of 2003, with its thrust of blackberry flavors. Now quite mellow, the fruit gently sweet, but still a rather graceful old fellow
These older wines, however, have been a revelation, a surprise that worries me a bit: they are so clean, so balanced--and I feel so well after consuming the same amount that I have regularly. Why? I believe it's because they are clean--free of additives of any kind--none of the dozens of additives that are permitted in wines made today. Wines in the 1980s from reputable producers were made from the juice of fermented grapes, yeast added to get the process started (generating alcohols of around 12.8 to 13.5 percent alcohol), the wine then aged in oak barrels. That's it. No coloring agents, stabilizers, flavor enhancers, preservatives. Yes, I know there were some producers who used those things back then, but not the ones interested in a wine that could reflect the plot of earth it came from or the deft touch of a winemaker who respected the grape variety, its intrinsic character, what it might bring to a blend.
Simple, sound, honest -- that doesn't mean they are not complex, with layers of flavor that emerge as they air, and bloom. They compel a certain attention--you don't gulp these wines. Not to get over-precious about it, but they do make one pause, prompting the recognition there is something special in the glass.
And I notice with the current wines I drink, the everyday sort that I can afford, that I sometimes feel a heaviness, a vague discomfort after a glass or two. Is it my imagination? The difference isn't--but okay, there's something else about these older wines: they were made with attention, and an intention to make the best quality the winemaker could. I knew many of these winemakers, walked with them in the vineyards, tasted with them from barrels in the cellars or from bottles in a tasting room or over lunch or dinner. I saw their dedication, and perhaps that's the difference. The juice of the grape--like most of nature, be it the flowers we grow, or the fruits and vegetables we eat--respond to that attention and it comes through in the wine.
Shall we see their like again? There are signs. Ever since the turn of this century, and a decade before in some instances, there has been a growing move toward organic vineyards. And an increasing number of winegrowers are turning to the somewhat mysterious, somewhat mystical practices of biodynamics. These involve labor-intensive techniques, replenishing the soil with natural organic preparations that — here’s the somewhat mystical and controversial part — attract cosmic influences that unleash the life forces in the earth and the plants. “So the earth may be healed,” wrote Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the Austrian philosopher, scientist and visionary who laid down biodynamic principles for farming in the early 20th century, paving the way for the eco-movement in this one. Biodynamic “preps” are mixed with spring water, stirred vigorously for one hour to intensify their potency, then sprayed on the soil, enhancing root systems and soil fertility — in effect boosting the immune system of the vine to better withstand onslaught from pests, weeds and disease. In some vineyards sheep are kept to graze cover crops in spring, their little feet also aerating the soil. Nesting boxes for bluebirds and purple swallowtails help control insects.
Astonishingly, it appears to work — growers find not only stronger vines, but also positive effects on wine aromas and flavors. “Biodynamics deals with how we might seek to harmonize our farming practices with the subtle forces of the universe,” innovative winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon once said, “following the astronomical calendar, availing ourselves of free cosmic fertilizer, you might say.”
It all might seem a bit “woo-woo” except for the fact that some of the world's most prestigious wine estates have embraced biodynamic practice —Domaines Leroy, Leflaive, Dujac, Comte Lafon in Burgundy, Zind-Humbrecht, the top name in Alsace, Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, Chapoutier in the Rhône and numerous others. Biodynamic farming in Europe—both in foodstuffs and wine—is huge and growing. And it has gained adherents in this country too.
Of course a wine doesn't have to be made from organically grown grapes or biodynamic vineyards to be good. There are sound, honest wines made today—but how does one know for sure what is in them? There's no ingredient labeling for wines—except for sulfites, which are much less used today anyway because wineries are more hygienic. Let us hope that as the earth heals during this enforced pause from some of humankind's destructive behavior, we'll be able to taste the difference.
Here is a selection of wines made from organic or biodynamic vineyards that I can recommend: prices range from $12 to $22, though well beyond that for Burgundies and Bordeaux. Most can be found online. Any wine available in your state can be ordered through your local wine merchant. Splitting a case--or half case--is a great option.
Bonterra Syrah, Mendocino, also: dry Rosé, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon ($12-18)
Domaine Bousquet Malbec, Pinot Noir, Argentina ($15-18)
Château Bousquette St. Chinian(dry rosé, red blends, Languedoc ($12-$22)
Domaine des Cèdres Côte-du-Rhône ($15-17)
Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Meysonniers, Rhône ($19-$22); many, if not all, Chapoutier wines are biodynamic
Hecht & Bannier Languedoc Rouge and Rosé $12-$17
King Estate Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, Oregon ($14-25)
Kreydenweiss Pinot Blanc Alsace ($19-23) biodynamic
Domaine Leflaive Macon-Verzé ($60-100) Leflaive is 100% biodynamic
Pierre Sparr Riesling, Alsace ($15), Crémant d'Alsace (sparkling, $16)
Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir, Carneros ($40-50)
Pierre Morey Meursault, Pommard Burgundy ($72-95) biodynamic
Jolivet Pouilly-Fumé Loire also Sancerre ($20-24)
Torino CUMA Malbec Argentina ($10-14)
Troon Vineyard Vermentino, Oregon ($18)
A votre santé!