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As a wine lover in the U.S., one of the things I find most frustrating is the air of mystery and elitism that drives most people to stick to well-known beer and cocktails. In fact, I not-so-secretly dislike the term "wine snob" because it reinforces that stereotype. Part of this air is the complexity of offerings, and inconsistency in labeling. Part of it is the "ritual" of ordering wine in a restaurant. You've probably been there at one time. Once you get past the seemingly monumental decision of choosing a wine for the table, next are all the other little decisions–What do I do with the cork? Why is the waiter only pouring a little for me? Can I send it back if I don't like it? Do I have to swirl my glass? Why? What are people looking for when they take a big sniff first? How do I know if the wine is supposed to taste like this? All of it can be just too stressful for the less-than-curious drinker. (Incidentally there are tons of useful beginner's guides out there, including this unfortunately named one: http://www.2basnob.com/ordering-wine.html) This leads me to my point–that final bastion of pretension, the epitome of elitist wine practices, the foo-fooiest of the shi-shi things to do...DECANTING! Nodding in agreement? I did too, years ago. Take a deep breath and let me see if I can change your mind. There are two very simple and logical reasons to decant some wines.
- To eliminate sediment from an unfiltered, or especially mature bottle
- To allow the wine to make contact with air, which can improve the taste of some wines by "softening" them, or letting them "open up".
On this night, I planned to match a good red wine to basic roast duck with a honey-orange glaze. While my first instincts went to Pinot Noir (I had a nice Oregon specimen in mind), I had a second thought about the orange. Acid can kill a wine that's not up to the battle. That's why so many salad dressings can make your wine taste nasty or dull. Then I had a third thought...in the last year I've had a brief infatuation with Cabernet Franc. I tend to like the harsh little rude grapes that usually only get used in blends to add tannins, or body, or acid. Cab Franc is one of those little rudies. It comes on with a tart black cherry and raspberry flavor, but then puckers you up, all the time smelling like roses and violets. A vicious little fighter that can slam duck fat to the floor, then do a dance-off with citrus. So I packed two for dinner. I was interested in a new world/old world face-off. In this corner, Beaucanon Estate:A little over-oaked I thought, it had a Cabernet Sauvignon nose, but opened to a lot of interesting flavors not typical in California reds. A deep dark color, with hints of amber at the rim speaking to age and oak. about $27. The beer aficianados in the group (who I did not know had a "thing" against Cali reds) were mildly surprised. And in this corner, Breton's Trinch! ("trinch" = "clink" in French, like you're toasting): The Loire region in France is an area that produces almost exclusively Cabernet Franc as its red option (the whites are many and legendary). The Trinch! was not as interesting on the nose initially, but like most French reds, was MADE for food. I'm not sure if this was oaked or stored in stainless, but wood was a very light touch in comparison. The younger Trinch! had a faint purple tone, almost blue at the rim. Violets covered the nose initially with a faint rose aroma, a satisfying black cherry taste, and a longer finish. Paired with the honey-orange duck it cleaned the palette like cranberry with turkey. About $20. The judges call? Drink the Californian while cooking, but save the French contender for a mouthful of duck-fat…which is where the real Battle Royale is taking place.
An interesting challenge: pair two wines to a bacon vinaigrette, an onion and bacon pie, and an Asian seasoned braise of pork belly. I was intimately familiar with the pie: bacon, an obscene amount of onions, Gruyere, and custard. This is the nexus of flavors from the area where Switzerland, Germany and France approach each other (north of Basel, past Colmar, to Strasbourg). I’ve been there and had only one choice--Alsatian Pinot Gris. It paired perfectly. The best option locally was Trimbach’s Pinot Gris 2002 Reserve.Classic citrus and melon flavors clean the palette, but the Alsatian slate and herby notes make this so much more interesting than similar California or Italian options. Red wine drinkers: this is your white (especially with cheese). Trust me. It even stood up well to the vinaigrette, but only because John had the foresight to demand enough mustard and bacon. About $18. So, what do we do with a braised pork belly? I opted to punt, and picked a local sparkler, a Michigan Rose in fact. L. Mawby makes one that they named “M. Lawrence SEX”. About $14. Bacon and sex? Yes, please. The bubbles and acidity helped, but there just wasn’t enough going on otherwise to recommend the pair. But like they say, sex is like pizza—even when it’s bad… I’m eager to move on to reds, cheap and rich. Is it barbecue season yet?
I have an unhealthy relationship with wine. I find it endlessly fascinating, and sometimes infuriating, I find it good in moderation, and better in excess. It's one hell of a tasty hobby. But I'm no wine expert. I know, everyone says that in their first post to try and sound like a "regular guy", not some kind of wine Einstein. Wine can be intimidating. There's too much to know out there, ever. Even if you were the expert of experts, there's always some crafty vineyard owner working in his lab to perfect a new blend, or breed a new varietal, or bring something new to the party. That's what makes wine fun...an endless variety of sensations, and endless invention. There's always something more to learn and new curiosities along the way, like Alice's rabbit hole. I've had no wine training, and I've only been to a few informal tastings. But what I do have (on top of my fascination) is practice. Malcolm Gladwell made a popular observation that the difference between proficiency and mastery of anything we do is about 10,000 hours of practice. I'm pretty sure I've logged well over that amount with my nose shoved deep into a half-full glass... So you can understand that I was happy to be invited into the Rogue Estate's inner circle of epicurean miscreants...if just to share a little of that enthusiasm with them, and with you. For my first Rogue's dinner, I offered to pair a couple bottles to the menu, which was described to me simply thus: "1st course: Littleneck clams on the half-shell w/ cold Ramp green puree Soup course: Fresh Pea soup, Ramp white garnish Main course: Seared Salmon, Strawberry Beurre Rouge, Balsamic Roasted Asparagus, Lemon-Ramp Rice" Here's what I showed up with and a few tasting notes. http://www.atozwineworks.com/pgris.html Willamette Valley Pinot Gris are what I usually reach for when there's shellfish in front of me. Extremely light in color--think straw with a faint green/grey hue. Supple citrus flavors dominate, mostly lime, with a background of honeysuckle and honeydew. A great palate cleanser, and suited to simple mild flavors--light cheeses, vegetables and a hit with littlenecks on the half-shell. About $13. http://www.lavieilleferme.com/rose.php?langue=en Lovely color--a bright pink with just a hint of amber.. Consistently receiving a score in the upper 80s by most reviewers this wine represents a serious value. Bright strawberry notes and a watermelon freshness that's irresistible (lack of oak helps here). A hint of caramel on the moderate finish. A great foil for fresh spring vegetables and fish. Just enough acidity to stand up to Jack's beurre rouge. About $8. Picking a good wine to pair with a dish is fun, but not something I've done a lot of. I expect that there will be good nights and bad nights. I encourage you to ditch the rulebook and remember that the best wine to drink with anything is the one that tastes good to you. Now, are you interested in coming along with me to see how deep this rabbit hole goes? - Ian