Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Burger Wine!

The headline is a bit of a misnomer. It should be “Ketchup Wine,” as in “wine that pairs well with ketchup.” To understand what a feat this is, here is just a brief bit of background, from Malcolm Gladwell's 2004 New Yorker article:

There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. ...Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?

Click here to read the whole story, which includes thoughts on why it is that  no “specialty” ketchup has ever really caught on.

So here we have a wine from Spain's La Mancha DOC, the country's largest appellation by area, and a forbidding place it can be: Winter temperatures as low as 5º F; summer temperatures as high as 113º F, and annual rainfall of 13-14 inches. One would think a while about living there voluntarily. Fortunately, winemaker  Rafael Cañizares is a sixth-generation resident of La Mancha, and I doubt he gives these figures a second thought. What he does know is the soil, and the 228 acres of vineyards that comprise Bodega Volver distinguish themselves by the presence of large river stones beneath the typical sandy limestone and clay of the region. The typical tempranillo vine on the property was planted about 40 years ago.

Bodegas Volver Tempranillo La Mancha Single Vineyard 2010: Opens with dark red fruit, anise, and vanilla oak on the nose; with time in the glass, some notes of cassis and woodsy/earthy character emerge. In the mouth, the wine feels rich (moreso with aeration) with flavors of cherry, cola, vanilla, and spice. There are also some bitter cherry-pit notes, and soft yet assertive tannins at the finish. The alcohol level is a bruising 15%, but the wine does not come across as “hot.” It's imported by Jorge Ordoñez Selections.  

So what is it that makes it go with ketchup? Probably the cola note, but the wine also hits three of the five flavor buttons mentioned above: Sweet, bitter, and savory (umami). The most important factor may be that the balance of flavors between wine and condiment seem similar. Whatever it is, a glass of Volver and a well-made burger with lots of ketchup is a surprisingly wonderful experience, and, at $16 a bottle, one that can be repeated without fear of budget-busting.

P.S.: We have noticed the phenomenon of restaurants specializing in fancy hamburgers served with fancy beverages like wine. Zinburger is an example. And right here in lil' ole Asheville we now have a similar place called Juicy Lucy's.

Zinburger's name signals its preferences in wines; there are three imported wines on the list I saw, and two of them are Malbecs. No tempranillo, and certainly not this one. Juicy Lucy's offers alcoholic beverages, but no wines. To the barricades, dear friends. These guys need to know what they're missing.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fumin: A Rarity from the Vallee d'Aoste

The Vallee d'Aoste, tucked away in Italy's mountainous northwest corner, is a small appellation (385 acres unde cultivation) that is home to a surprising number of grape varieties, including such obscurities as Petit Arvine, Premetta, Cornalin, Mayolet, and Fumin (the subject of today's review). There is also a fair amount of nebbiolo planted, although here it goes by the name  Picotendro. Similarly, there is some pinot grigio here also, going by the name Malvoisie. Confusing, yes. Given that the entire appellation's production is smaller than some single Italian estates, it is a wonder that some of these wines make it out of the region at all.

This being the Alps, there are glaciers, and the soil of the appellation's vineyards is glacial moraine, a jumble of rocks and sand left by the movement of glaciers. It's excellent soil for grapevines: with rocks small and large predominating, there is no orderly layering of soil, so drainage is excellent, and the rocks transmit the warmth of the sun deep into the earth.

The history of Frères Grosjean began in 1969 when, at the urging of his friends, Dauphin Grosjean began making wine near the villages of Quart and St. Christophe in the Vallee d'Aoste. From very small beginnings, Grosjean Freres now has about 25 acres under cultivation in the valley, at an altitude of about 2,600 feet. The winery was a pioneer in organic winemaking, following natural and sustainable practices in the vineyard since 1975, now under the direction of winemaker Vincent Grosjean.

Grosjean Fumin “Vigne Merletta” DOC Vallee d'Aoste 2007: This is a blend of 90% Fumin and 10% Petite Rouge, harvested from vines planted between 1990 and 2002. Grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed; vinification was in wooden vats, with 8-10 days of skin contact. The finished wine was aged (not sure for how long) in wood vats and stainless steel tanks. Total production is just 8,000 bottles annually.

We drank this in the company of our good friend Larry Weaver, who made a rare in-person appearance. The Chef had wonderful homemade pork sausage and grilled baby eggplant for us, which proved an excellent pairing. Upon opening, we got a healthy whiff of SO2, which blew off in a few minutes to reveal aromas of brown spice, a hint of bretty funkiness (which receded with time), and some subtle, complex herbal notes. Larry detected a note of sandalwood. On the palate we got flavors of tart cherry, with the firm acidity cushioned by some softer red fruit. Some firm tannins carried the finish. The overall impression was of elegance and freshness. The wine was quite dark, almost purplish—a reminder that Fumin is often blended in as a teinturier grape, to add color. As is typical of so many Italian reds, the wine showed best with the food—it was really very good with the sausage!

The bottle came from Chambers Street; the Fumin doesn't seem to be available in Asheville, although some other Grosjean wines are around, including the charming Torrette, which is a blend of a rarity called Vien de Nus along with a small proportion of Fumin and Coralin.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A New Verdejo Value

There is so much good Rueda white wine on the market these days, that it is hard to remember that the region was not known for quality wine production until 1972, when the Rioja-based Marqués de Riscal, under the guidance of the ubiquitous Prof. Peynaud of Bordeaux, came into the region specifically to make white wine from the Verdejo grape, known to be vulnerable to quick oxidation. The company invested heavily in cold fermentation, and established a policy of picking in the cool early morning hours and generally doing everything possible to protect the grapes and juice from heat and oxygen.

The result of this investment, made 40 years ago, has given new life to the Verdejo grape and its traditional companion Viura (and foreign interloper Sauvignon Blanc, which was planted as part of the Riscal effort).

A modern crusader for quality white wine from Rueda is  Hannibal Paunero Asensio, director of Bodega La Soterraña, established in 2006 in the town of Olmedo (better known for its Moorish castles and cathedrals than for wine production).  Working with winemaker José Lorenzo, he produces several wines, under a variety of names, including Eresma, V&R, SieteSiete, and Olmedal. He has about 330 acres of vineyards, most of it sandstone and clay, with some limestone and clay along the banks of the Eresma River, which runs through the town.

Olmeda  Verdejo Rueda 2011: The nose is Sauvignon-like, with lots of herbal character and notes of grapefruit rind. On the palate, crisp citrus flavors and a faint, pleasing nutty character oddly reminiscent of chardonnay. There is some mineralic character. I've tasted a few Ruedas (Shaya comes to mind) that bore strong resemblance to Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire; this is not one of them. Which is not a complaint; at our house, we're in favor of wines that taste like the place they come from. This is brought in by Wine Without Borders in Durham; we got it at the Asheville Wine Market for $9.99, which is a good indicator that we'll be back for more. [A note of caution: As mentioned above, winemakers have made great strides in preventing Verdejo from premature oxidation. Even so, this wine fell off noticeably after spending a day in the refrigerator with only its original cork as a closure. If you want it to last for more than a day, I'd invest in a Vacu-Vin pump.]

And it looks like there will be more. Current economic crises notwithstanding, Bodega La Soterraña  plans to expand, with a 400,000-euro investment in winery capacity and automation that will bring capacity to 6 million bottles a year, up from the present 4 million.