Words of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder on Wine & Spirits

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chardonnay: Elegance In A Glass

Chardonnay has certainly shouldered its fair share of abuse over the last few years. Perhaps the disproportionate share of poor quality wine to good bears much of the responsibility for this peculiar trend. And there is no doubt an overabundance of yellow plonk out there masquerading as the genuine article. I can still recall the perennial joke whereby the bar patron asks for "ABC" wine, the "ABC" being an acronym for "Anything But Chardonnay."

That was back when a preponderance of Pinot Grigio was probably being poured, along with Soave and Sauvignon Blanc and scores of nondescript German Rieslings and French vin de pays. All of which is fine. But for serious summer quaffing, in my view, the wine most worth considering is Chardonnay. More than any other white varietal, Chardonnay makes it into Wine Spectator Magazine’s Top 100 Wines of the Year consistently year after year, many of them from California.

Chardonnay is, of course, the name of the grape varietal that is rooted in the traditions of France's southeastern Burgundy wine producing region. But it took winemakers in California to promote the varietal to the rest of the world. Today, when someone requests a glass of Chardonnay, it is almost always assumed that they mean California Chardonnay.

And why not? To begin with, French Burgundies comprised mostly of Chardonnay are prohibitively expensive these days and often are so overwhelmingly oakey that, to the untrained palette, they can taste almost sherrified. Further, stories abound of blind tastings where California Chardonnays far surpass white Burgundies, in many cases the American wine costing a fraction of the French one.

This seems to be happening with increasing frequency--it first occurred in the early 1970's-- with every successive growing season. And while Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated an admirable ability to produce decent Chardonnay, most are either overly oaked or too lacking in distinctive fruit flavor for the American palate.

To be sure, the California approach to winemaking differs vastly from that of Europe or Australia, so much so that many Chardonnays these days are said to be in the "California style" even if they are made in other states such as Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Texas and New York. The best California Chards are crisp, clean and well balanced in acidity, tannins and fruit. And, depending on where it's from, range from light bodied, delicate, and crisp, to full bodied, rich, and oakey. Cooler growing areas--known as appellations--such as those in Oregon, Washington, New York, and California's Central Coast, generally make for Chardonnays that have higher acidity, medium body and lighter fruit flavors.

The other, warmer parts of California, particularly the glamorous, celebrated appellations of Napa and Sonoma, produce wines with richer, more complex flavors and fuller body. And while California continually turns out some of the best Chardonnays I've ever tasted, the wines of Oregon and Washington are improving tremendously, with many already achieving a level of quality almost equal to topnotch producers in Napa, Sonoma and Monterey.

Not far behind Napa and Sonoma is New York's burgeoning wine producing region, the north fork of Long Island, where there are more than 50 wineries now flourishing, all producing entirely palatable Chardonnay, including special reserve bottlings. Many of these producers have achieved such high quality Chardonnay, one might even classify them as equal to California's best.

There is no doubt that Chardonnay is best enjoyed in the warmer months, from May through October. Nothing is more soothing than a hearty merlot or spicy Zinfandel to accompany a Thanksgiving Day repast, and for sitting by the fire afterward, a glass of vintage Port is unequaled. But when the spring begins to bloom and out come the tulips and barbecue grills, I love to christen the new season with a crisp, citrus edged yet buttery Chardonnay. Indeed, whenever I grill out on my deck, a glass of wine is as important as a pair of tongs and a homemade marinade. And that wine is almost always Chardonnay, either from California or one of the wineries not more than a half hour drive from my house on the north shore of Long Island. In fact, I often bask in the idea that the wine in my glass came from Chardonnay grapes grown just 25 miles away.

While Napa Valley continues to be home to the most prestigious Chardonnay producers, including Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Chalk Hill, Cakebread, Forman, Far Niente and Pahlmeyer, to name just a few, Sonoma, in recent years, has made strides as well, turning out collectible Chards that match Napa for quality and finesse. Producers such as Kistler, Sonoma-Cutrer, Simi, Ferrari-Carrano, Toad Hollow and a number of wineries in the Carneros region have fast become major entities in cellars nationwide.

Even newer is the Central Coast Monterey region, where arguably the best Chardonnay producer in all of California thrives--Robert Talbott. Although this winery is small compared to big league producers such as Kendall Jackson, (who bought major acreage adjacent to Talbott a decade ago) Glen Ellen and Beringer, owner and winemaker Robb Talbott turns out a number of bottlings, including the Sleepy Hollow Estate, Diamond T and the less expensive Logan. Noted Wine critic Robert Parker has been quoted as saying: "There are those who believe Talbott turns out the best Chardonnay in California and I would not argue with them." Talbott gets my vote for the most complex Chardonnays I've ever had the pleasure to imbibe, both from the winery's French oak barrels and from a glass.

While Talbott was one of the first to plant Chardonnay rootstocks in the hilly terrain of this mountainous region, Napa and Sonoma winemakers have been falling all over themselves to secure acreage in this heretofore untapped viniferous Eden. Apart from Robert Talbott, other well established quality Chardonnay producers in Monterey include Bernardus, Chalone and Morgan.

The best Monterey Chardonnays may not match Napa in terms of sheer power, but with regard to ripeness, complexity and finesse, many of the wines from this region are becoming the new standard bearer. Add excellent acidity and the ability to balance that acidity with a broad palette of tropical fruit flavors and you've defined the Coastal California Chardonnay style at its best. In many ways, the cooler climate of the region provides the winemakers of the area with the edge they need to produce Chardonnays with an impressive degree of finesse, in some cases even more so than their better known neighbors to the north.

Part of the attraction of Chardonnay is discovering the style of wine one prefers, whether it originate from the various appellations of California, Oregon and Washington out west, Texas and Virginia in the south, or New York and Connecticut in the northeast. All have their particular style, along with individual winemakers who invariably put their own spin on the finished wine. Experiment. Try as many as your wallet will allow, from the cheapest bottle, to more expensive and rarer bottlings. Tasting Chardonnay is the best possible way to learn the pleasures and rewards of this great varietal. It won't be long before you'll be asking the bartender or waiter for "NBC" wine...Nothing But Chardonnay.

My Top Ten Chardonnays

While I am continually trying new Chardonnays, this list represents my favorites, the wines I come back to time and again. I've chosen these wines based on consistency, quality and flavor, along with value, though some are a bit expensive. I have not included vintages because even in difficult years these producers still made wines that were better than most. Enjoy!

Ferrari-Carano Reserve, Napa Valley, CA
Moderate body. Finely balanced. A touch of oak, with clean, smoky aromas and hint of green apple. Beautifully textured and complex, with yeasty, spicy flavors reminiscent of vintage Champagne. Long, echoing finish. Don't miss it.

Robert Mondavi Reserve, Napa Valley, CA
Excellent balance of fruit and acid. Hefty body. Toasty notes layered with spice and hints of vanilla. New oak accents underneath. Buttery texture with generous apple and pear flavors that finish with a clean, citrus edge. Amazing consistency.

Robert Talbott Sleepy Hollow, Monterey, CA
Medium-bodied. Moderately acidic. Hints of new French oak layered with toast and minerals. Amazingly complex, with delicate, buttery mouthfeel giving way to tropical fruit flavors accented with vanilla. Wonderful aromas and long, lasting finish. Best of Class.

Beringer Private Reserve, Napa Valley, CA
Full-bodied. Well balanced between acid and fruit. Toasty flavors up front, with clean, new oak accents underneath. Rich and powerful, with subtle spice flavors revealed in the long, intense finish. Truly elegant. California Chardonnay at its best.

Chalone Vineyards Reserve, Chalone, CA
Moderate-body. Beautifully balanced acidity, with a tight core of citrus fruits. Silky in texture and intriguingly aromatic. Hints of floral perfume the nose. Rich mouthfeel with a long, lemon tinged finish. Worth searching for.

Mark West, Russian River Valley, CA
Full-bodied. Demonstrably acidic but delicately balanced. Very forward tropical fruit flavors framed in a buttery textured mouthfeel. Hints of exotic spice and vanilla run through the long, vibrant finish. A great find at a great price.

Cambria Katherine's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, CA
Medium body. Creamy texture with echoes of new French oak that give way to ripe fruit flavors tinged with citrus. Beautifully balanced between the fruit flavors, yeasty undertones and acid. Complex yet accessible. Lovely finish. Beautifully made.

Villa Mt. Eden Grand Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, CA
Medium body. Buttery, textural mouthfeel, with mango, papaya, even banana flavors underneath. Increasingly less acidic in recent vintages but ripe and flavorful, with a fine balance of oak and smoke. Rich finish keeps you coming back for more.

Pellegrini, North Fork, Long Island
Medium-body. Nicely balanced and impeccably made. Creamy in texture, with crisp fruit flavors up front echoing a subtle taste of new oak. Moderate acidity yet intensely flavorful. Crisp and clean. Nice finish. One of Long Island's new classics.

Wolffer Estate Reserve, South Fork, Long Island
Made of 100% Dijon-clone Chardonnay planted in 1993, this barrel-fermented wine offers up vanilla and dried-pineapple aromas, and a bit of lime zest. The palate opens into pear and cream flavors, with a long, minerally finish.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Extraordinary Wines Ordinary Prices

Serious wine lovers and collectors are always on the lookout for special bottles, especially highly rated vintages from France, Italy and California meant for aging and cellaring. These are often trophy wines bought as much for long term investing as short term bragging. And, of course, for drinking. Eventually. But what about everyday imbibing, especially when entertaining at home?

Fortunately, there is a wealth of wine treasures widely available--wines pleasing to the palate yet won’t wreak havoc on your wallet. Here is a select assortment of high quality, well-priced wines from all over the world worth stocking up on for every day drinking. I’ve left off the vintages because most of these wines are consistently good. Cheers!

Alexander Valley Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
A plump and delicious meritage blend made mostly of Cabernet that has depth and character and gets my vote for one of the best clarets out of Sonoma’s southern Alexander Valley. This is mighty good juice that explodes in the mouth with ripe black cherry, chocolate and plum flavors and echoes of spicy pepper. Sweet cassis emanates from the nose along with a hint of cigar box. Shows enough complexity for cellaring, though it’s drinking extremely well, even at this young age. The perfect wine for those special guests or occasion. Stock up, since past vintages have been gobbled up by collectors who understand the immense value in this elegant Bordeaux blend of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and Malbec. Enjoy with a juicy steak or roasted veal shank. About $36.99.

Allegrini Verona Palazzo Della Torre
Made in the style of its loftier brother Amarone, with a portion of the grapes air-dried before crushing, this is a full-bodied blend of 70% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella, and 5% Sangiovese, aged in small oak barrels for 15 months. Rich with a black cherry core that smoothly echoes notes of spicy herbs, mocha and hints of tobacco. Great with a meat ragu over pasta, grilled steak or pork ribs. About $13.99.

Rusden Eureka Stockade Shiraz Barossa Valley
A 100% Shiraz cuvee from the much heralded Barossa Valley, this is a rich and voluptuous wine that benefits greatly from time spent in French oak. Typically deep ruby and purple in color, it offers up layers of smoke, blackberry and roasted fruit flavors up front with a long, extended finish. A genuine ingénue made by 28-year-old Christian Canute, one of Australia’s youngest and most ambitious winemakers. Robert Parker gave it 92 points. Try it with a London Broil or burgers on the barby. About $19.99.

Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon California
Few realize that this terrific and rambunctious cabernet sauvignon was founded by Caymus’s Chuck Wagner, considered by many to be one of the greatest red winemakers in Napa, if not beyond. Named, aptly enough, after the one-room schoolhouse Wagner attended as a lad, he appeared to have learned his lessons well—this is a fleshy, medium-bodied red with soft tannins and nuances of dark cherry, currants and lots of oak. Most of the fruit is from the central coast region. An elegant dinner wine at a great price that will improve with age. About $14.99.

Bodega Norton Privada Mendoza
This Argentinean winery dates back to the end of the 19th Century, so they know a thing or two about making great wine. Deep garnet in color, this stylish, well-structured red boasts dark chocolate and ripe black cherry flavors with accents of red pepper and exotic spices. This is a plump, concentrated wine aged 14 months in French oak. Begs to be paired with rack of lamb or pit roasted pork. About $19.99.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough
A tangy, highly distinctive sauvignon blanc made from low yielding fruit of the Wairau, Brancott and Awatere valleys of New Zealand. This is a refreshing white that offers up a plethora of cut grass and exotic floral aromas on the nose and discernible grapefruit, gooseberry, guava and raw almond flavors on the palate.
Fills the mouth with citrus flavor balanced by clean acid. Great with raw oysters or clams and poached salmon. A perennial gold medal winner in New Zealand. About $16.99.

NV Gloria Ferrer Brut Sonoma County
This is as good as non-vintage bubbly gets in California and easily one of the best bargains among the wealth of California sparklers. Full-bodied and complex, this is a bright yet rich sparkling wine that impresses with its crisp apple, honeydew and casaba melon flavors. Tight, palatable bubbles give way to yeasty aromas that recall fresh baked bread and the long finish rings in with creamy notes of vanilla. Made of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay, this Carneros sparkler garners 90 points from Wine Spectator. About $20.00.

Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes (Half Bottle)
Drinking excellently right now, this beautifully balanced 2002 vintage Sauternes is a blend of 90% Semillon and 10% sauvignon blanc. Pale honey gold in color, this dessert wine is creamy and delicious nectar that is medium sweet, offering up vibrant notes of apple, vanilla and cashew. Full-bodied, it finishes with a caress of honey and faint apricot flavors. Excellent with a triple crème or Camembert and sliced apple or pear or with roasted filberts. A venerable Bordeaux house, it garnered five stars from Decanter Magazine. About $29.99.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Marlborough Country: In Praise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Sip a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and the wine will conjure unmistakably acidic flavors of lemon, white peach, ripe grapefruit, honeydew, passion fruit, gooseberries, wet stones and freshly cut grass.

As with no other wine I can think of, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is virtually unmistakable even when tasted blind, especially those from the Marlborough region, which is arguably where the best examples of this superb varietal are produced. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that New Zealand now produces the best Sauvignon Blanc on the planet, surpassing even those of France, better known as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.

Given that the first commercial release of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand happened less than three decades ago (a nanosecond in wine industry time), one might understandably ask how these wines became the benchmark for the varietal, and, in many ways, redefined the genre. Michael Franz, wine writer for the Washington Post offered one of the more intuitive explanations a few years ago when he proposed that the best wines result from a synergy between a particular grape and a particular place and that these synergies can be neither contrived by art nor explained adequately by science.

“A synergy is an interaction of two or more things achieving an effect of which each is individually incapable,” Franz wrote. “That is exactly what we've got in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: An absolutely extraordinary wine, derived from a grape that reaches comparable heights nowhere else, produced in a place that attains comparable greatness with no other grape.”

In truth, Marlborough also produces highly regarded Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But there is no arguing that Sauvignon Blanc is the star varietal of the region and has single-handedly put New Zealand on the viniferous map as a producer of world class wines. To understand the terroir of Marlborough is to understand how and why the area so consistently produces such excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Situated in the scenic and verdant northeastern portion of New Zealand's southern island, Marlborough’s climate is consistently cool, sunlight is intense and abundant and rainfall is slight. While the facts of the area’s weather patterns are undisputable, it does little to uncloak the mysteries of the local varietals, since there are other regions in New Zealand equally as cool, sunny and dry, yet unable to compete in quality, flavor and complexity of their wines.

The crisp, citrusy varietal character in Marlborough SV is from a compound called methoxypyrazine

Marlborough is somewhat unique in that it boasts highly varied soils, a mineral-rich amalgam of sandy loam, gravel, large stones and clay, all perfectly irrigated by nearby streams and rivers descending from the surrounding mountains. Further, within the Marlborough region, exceptional drainage occurs in the Wairau and Awatere valleys where the most exceptional Sauvignon Blancs are often found.

The shallow, low fertility soils that drain rapidly help produce lusher, more aromatic and riper wines, since the conditions reduce the vines’ vigor. In areas of Marlborough where there is greater water retentive soils and moderate fertility, more herbaceous style Sauvignon Blancs are produced. But the real secret to Marlborough’s crisp, citrusy varietal character is a compound called methoxypyrazine, often found in tiny amounts in many white wines. Fortunately for us, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is brim full of it.

Marlborough SV in a glass: Flavors of lemon, white peach, ripe grapefruit, honeydew, passion fruit, gooseberries, wet stones and freshly cut grass.

There is little doubt that the courageous growers who began creating vineyards in the Marlborough region in the early 1970’s (some reports claim there is evidence that grapes were planted as early as 1870) had any idea of the levels of quality and popularity their fledgling wine industry would eventually attain, all on the coattails of a little known and under appreciated varietal otherwise known as Sauvignon Blanc.

Almost from the earliest releases, wine critics and collectors all over the world began taking note of the distinctive tropical fruit flavors, herbal aromas and zesty acidity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. As accolades from xenophiles and the press have continued to build over the years, so too have the number of winemakers in the region, which has forged a veritable boom in area winemaking and firmly established Marlborough and New Zealand as a major player upon the stage of world class winemaking.

Fun Facts ABout Marlborough

Located close to the heart of New Zealand, Marlborough is the country’s largest winemaking region, with close to 110 wineries and 450 grape growers accounting for nearly 62% of its total wine production, a number that has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. The commercial hub is Blenheim, population 26,550. Marlborough is an idyllic travel destination, offering up pastoral sunken valleys that create a network of tranquil clear waterways amid regenerating and virgin native forests. The area is home to treasured bird and sea life, including terns, shags, herons, blue penguins, dolphins, seals, and native forest birds, all easily viewed by private boat or charter tour. Apart from gourmet dining in the many restaurants and eateries scattered throughout the region, visitors often work off glorious repasts by taking part in the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km, three or four-day walk that curls around Marlborough’s valley coves and inlets and along skyline ridges between the breathtaking Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte Sounds.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs I Love:

Wairau River Valley: Jackson Estate, Cloudy Bay. Villa Maria (Cellar Selection), Huia, Wairau River, Lake Chalice

Awatere Valley: Dashwood, Vavasour, Goldwater, Saint Clair, The Crossings

Hawkes Bay:Villa Maria

Amarone Mi Amore

Italians are passionate about three things: food, wine and fashion, though not necessarily in that order. And while fashion from Italy is continually evolving, as it should be, and new young chefs from Rome to Milan are always putting new spins on their cuisine, leave it to the Italians to strive for even greater perfection when it comes to red wine.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with the peculiar, dark ruby claret otherwise known as Amarone Della Valpolicella, or Amarone for short. Made for years in the Venetian region of Italy, Amarone is unique in that the wine is made from grapes that have been air dried on bamboo racks, ostensibly to further elicit the concentrated flavors in the fruit. This unorthodox drying process and vinification method, while increasing the alcohol content of the wine and thus its ability to age, also creates a certain power and complexity that is curiously unlike any other big ruby claret, including those of Bordeaux.

To be sure, Amarone is one of the most expensive and painstaking wines to produce, with an end result that is often lost even on Italian wine enthusiasts, some of who dismiss the wine as bitter. Ironically, Amarone in Italian means “big bitter.” Which begs the question: why even bother? Ask any winemaker in the Veneto and he’ll explain it thus—it’s a labor of love.

To better understand Amarone, it helps to realize that Italian red wine was not always particularly well thought of by wine lovers on either side of the Atlantic. Not too long ago most Americans thought of Italian wine in terms of cheap, barely drinkable Chianti that invariably came in straw wrapped flasks that sold for under $5. It was more a curiosity then a serious wine.

 Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are the Amarone varietals grown exclusively in the Veneto

Indeed, the Italian word for flask, “fiasco,” was an apt description of its contents and half explains how the word may have seeped its way into the American vernacular in the first place. But lest one thinks the Italians poor winemakers think again. No one would argue that following the war years, Italian winemakers had a tradition of keeping the best wines for themselves and exporting gallons of plonk (including sickly sweet versions of sparkling wine from the Asti region known as Spumante), masquerading as serious wine.

But in the last two decades, many red wines from Italy have grown increasingly elegant and distinctive, inspired in no small part by the huge Tuscan reds that have taken the market by storm. Wine collectors everywhere have been stocking their cellars with plump, well upholstered Barolos, fragrant and sophisticated Barbarescos and the majestic, if often massive Brunello di Montalcino. Without a doubt, Amarone belongs in this lofty group of rossi giganti.

In the hilly Veneto area surrounding the beautiful city of Verona, more than 3,000 acres are under vine. Grape varietals known as Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are grown almost exclusively here and most are blended into popular, medium and light bodied red wines known as Valpolicella and Bardolino, both best drunk when young.

This same blend of grapes also goes into Amarone, officially known as Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. The word "recioto" is derived from a dialectic corruption of the Italian word for ears, orecchi, as in orecchiette, the famous pasta of Bari. While on the vine, the uppermost clusters of grapes are called the "recie," which are those that get the most sunlight and thus become ripest at harvest. These are the special clusters that are hand picked and spread out to be dried for the making of recioto, otherwise known as Amarone.

After the grapes are picked they are left uncrushed for a period ranging from a single month to up to three, depending on how dry the growing season was and the temperature of the room where they are stored. After a few weeks the grapes begin to desiccate, shriveling into raisins. The loss of water naturally intensifies the sugar content. The grapes are checked for mold on a daily basis and any fruit that is infected is discarded to prevent the mold from spreading.

As the heart of winter begins, sometimes as late as January, the grapes are finally crushed and vinified. Understandably, the amount of juice yielded in the crush is less than half of what it would be had the grapes been crushed when first picked. To quote Spencer Tracy, “there ain’t much meat on them bones but what’s there is cherce.” And extremely concentrated, which raises the sugar content to as much as 30 percent, an increase of more than 10 percent over the standard for fresh juice. Changes in the wine’s acids also occur, and the fermented juice takes on myriad complexities in both aroma and flavor. With residual sugar content somewhere near 3 percent, the alcohol content rises to 14 percent and sometimes higher. Powerful stuff this Amarone, which certain wine historians believe is descended from a late harvest wine known as “acinato” that dates back to the days when Roman soldiers were out conquering the world.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the modern Amarones are decidedly less potent than their ancestral wines. Still, the word most Italian wine aficionados use to describe them is “assertive” and justly so. Depending on the growing season, most modern day Amarones begin to reach their peak from four to seven years after harvest and retain their power and charm for another decade. A fun fact: Amarone is the fourth biggest seller in Italy, behind Chianti, Asti and Soave.

 Cesari makes some of the finest Classico Amarone della Valpolicella

The best vintages render iron-fisted wines that are almost black in color, with roasted fruit flavors at the core that echo with hints of tobacco, ripe figs, raisins, nuts and earthy spices. The mouthfeel is full yet velvety, with an impressive balance of fruit to acidity. The wines invariably finish with an impressive amount of fragrance and flavor.

Pairing a good bottle of Amarone with food is risky business, since the wine can easily overpower virtually anything in the way of comestibles. Think hearty, comfort foods such as roast beef or prime rib, duck, goose or game meats like venison or wild boar. Pork and beef are staples of the Veneto region and ubiquitous on local tables. In the late fall and winter months, the Veronese often serve Amarone with a medley of boiled chicken, lamb, pork, beef and innard meats known as the Gran Bollito Misto.

Amarone was also the favored wine of one notable, if fictional, gourmand who liked to drink his with a plate of fava beans. Then again, Hannibal Lechter is not someone anyone would ever want to share a meal with, even if he did uncork a great vintage Amarone.

Sweet on Bitters

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word amore sounds awfully close to amaro. After all, enthusiasts who know their bitters by and large confess to a large scale love affair with amaro, the Italian “digestivo” hugely popular in Italy but scarcely known stateside.

When it comes to bitters, most Americans may be vaguely familiar with Angostura, a ghastly dark and insanely bitter concoction sometimes added in droplets to a Bloody Mary. Those a bit more in the know might recognize Compari and Fernet Branca, two of the most widely distributed digestives on both sides of the Atlantic. But amaro, in this writer’s view, is in another class altogether.

Amaro is a bitter, sometimes bittersweet eau de vie comprised of herbs and spices steeped in either grape brandy (grappa) or pure grain alcohol, originally developed in the 1700’s by monks in abbes and monasteries ostensibly as a medicine meant to cure all ills. Given the high alcohol content of these early elixirs, they may not have cured any ailments yet after a glass or two it undoubtedly felt like it did. A century later, so popular did bitters such as amaro become that the beverage began to be marketed commercially. Today, amari (plural of amaro) are produced in virtually every region of Italy, under as many brand names, with some never sold outside the local towns and villages where they originated. In the US, we’ve come to know just a few: Fernet Branca (Milan) and to a lesser degree, Averna (Sicily).

 Classic amari range in color from golden amber to dark maple

Some of the best brand names of amari that are available of late in better wine and spirits stores in the US include Amaro Lucarno (Basilicata), Ramazzotti (Milan), Amaro Montenegro (Bologna) and Amaro Nonino (Friuli), the latter created by the internationally renown grappa makers. Needless to say, the individual recipes for these so-called “magic” elixirs are closely guarded secrets held by families for generations. A typical amaro, amazingly enough, may contain a blend of as many as forty rare and exotic herbs, fruits, and spices. Because the recipes vary from maker to maker, there is always a disparity in taste, aroma, color, weight and alcoholic kick of the various amari.

At first sip, the taste of amaro may send a bit of a jolt to the senses, culminating in a shiver and a look of shock and dismay. To be sure, amaro is an acquired taste. But once initiated to the marvelous subtleties and complex flavors of a fine amaro, which can run from sage, nutmeg and burnt orange to toasted nuts, cardamom and bittersweet chocolate, there is no other libation that can compare, especially after a huge meal, which is when this digestive is best imbibed. Italians drink their favorite amaro straight, either in a shot or liqueur glass or poured into the remaining coffee and sugar in the bottom of their espresso cup. Some prefer it mixed with soda and a wedge of lemon or line as a tasty summer refresher.

If American marketers have their way, we will no doubt soon be seeing amaro as the primary ingredient in the latest cocktail craze, which is fine by me. Before that inevitability occurs we should keep in mind that amaro, as a digestive, was originally designed to soothe a sour stomach left in the wake of an indulgent repast. But no matter how bitter it may be, I’ll take amaro over Maalox any day of the week.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Groovy Gruner Veltliner

A distinctive white from Austria is gaining aficionados stateside

Having been lucky enough to tour the lush wine regions of the Wachau Valley a few years ago, I was treated to some of Bavaria’s best wines paired with perhaps the finest Austrian cuisine.  But as much as I loved the crisp, citrusy (and decidedly dry) Rieslings, both white and red, my mind and palate still savor the scarcely known Austrian white varietal (at least in America) known as Grüner Veltliner.

Fortunately, from all indications in the wine trade, things are changing and this truly delicious and savory wine is beginning to win fans on this side of the Atlantic.  For the uninitiated, Grüner Veltliner (pronounced something like GROON-er FELT-lih-nur) is one of the most widely planted grapes currently grown in Austria and is often served young and fresh by the barrelful in restaurants and beer gardens alike.  It is a late ripening varietal that is typically pale green in color and abounds in fruity notes of grapefruit, limes, pears, and tart apple with hints of mild white pepper.

Because the best Gruner Veltliner wines are resolutely acidic, with a solid, flinty framework, they can age gracefully and actually improve and become more complex, much like that of a quality Viognier. Further, with all their natural acidity, subtle fruit and grassy finish, virtually any Gruner Veltliner is an excellent match with a wide variety of food, from roasted veal shank to grilled swordfish.

The grape's natural acidity accompanied by its restrained and understated fruit characters makes its wines ideal partners for food.  If ever there was the perfect alternative to woodsy Chardonnays, this is it; the herbal aromas and spicy palatability of a well-made Gruner Veltliner is decidedly un-Chardonnay-like in its lack of wood expression.

While the origins of the varietal are unclear, the name "Veltliner" is taken from the South Tyrol village of Veltlin, yet there is no current or historical trace of the grape in the area. It more likely originated in the northern part of Lower Austria, back to medieval times when Grüner Veltliner was probably a part of the mixed plantings common to local vineyards.  As a grape, Gruner Veltliner is a decidedly versatile varietal and has proven to be adaptable to virtually any type of terroir or soil, from shale-laden rock to chalk.  In fact, all this varietal needs to thrive is a reasonable amount of drainage. 
In many ways Gruner Veltliner is to Austria what Zinfandel is to California; though the varietal is grown elsewhere in Europe, the best examples are almost totally Austrian and may well ultimately be Bavaria’s most definitive wine.  Today, Gruner Veltliner accounts for 36 % of Austria’s vine plantings, and represents the majority of Austrian table wines, which is not surprising given its versatile character.   The simplest, least expensive Gruner Veltliners tend to be crisp and refreshing, while the more costly versions often boast spice and complexity worthy of a Corton Charlemagne.  Says the esteemed wine author Hugh Johnson:  “to compare it with Riesling is like comparing a wild flower with a finely bred garden variety in which scent, color, size, and form have been studied and improved for many years."

Gruner Veltliner is one of the most widely planted grapes currently grown in Austria

Relatively inexpensive, most Gruner Veltliner wines range from about $15 up to about $60 and can often be found misplaced among Rieslings and non-descript “Alsatian” wines in most local wine shops.  New York-based importer and distributor Michael Skurnik ( brings in a representative assortment of Gruner Veltliners, including the full-bodied, creamy and concentrated Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm, rich and peppery Brundlmayer Lamm, exotically spiced Ludwig Heidler and pear-accented, rich and round Familie Nigl, to name just a few.  All are flinty in the finish, with pungent aromas and offer up a cornucopia of exotic fruit, herb and spice flavors, underscored by a lively acidity.

Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm is full-bodied, creamy and concentrated.

Of course, nothing compares to sampling Gruner Veltliner in Austria, especially in the picturesque Wachau Valley, where the best ones are made.  In my book, this delightful if difficult to pronounce wine is right up there with my favorite things Austrian, including Sacher torte and Wienerschnitzel.  In fact, a crisp, fruity Gruner Veltliner would be the ideal accompaniment to both.