Chianti is an old land, and this is an old post, taking literal months to think through a whirlwind tour of Tuscany — and to digest the full experience, food, wine and culture.
What is Chianti?
Well, there is a definition according to the region’s authorities themselves, which seems to offer up a strict set of guidelines. But as we will see, those guidelines can play out differently in different places. There is more than a “bit” of wiggle room, even in Chianti Classico. Chianti wine is first and foremost wine made in Chianti, and the authorities tell us that:
Other fundamentals and other requisites concern the ampelographical base—or the types of grapes that can be used in the preparation of the wine. The rules provide for a minimum ratio of 80% for Sangiovese, the typical red variety of the zone. Along with the Sangiovese, other red grapes of the area can be used in a maximum percentage of 20%. These grapes include natives like Canaiolo and Colorino as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all recommended and/or authorized for the production zone. Among the principal sensory characteristics indicated by the production rules, there is the ruby red color that can become at times intense and profound, depending upon the wine’s origin. The odor offers floral notes of violets and irises combined with a typical character of red fruit. The flavor is harmonious, dry and sapid with a good level of tannin that fines in time, becoming soft and velvety. Other requisites requested include a minimum alcohol level of 12 degrees for young wines and 12.5 degrees for the Riserva.
A quick analysis of these guidelines gives us an initial picture of a lithe, drinkable, sanguine wine, originating from the native Sangiovese grape and perhaps a scattering of local field varietals. Flowers and raspberries dominate the palate, and at 12 percent alcohol, it’s quite sessionable.
That is Chianti… or is it?
A more pointed analysis would highlight that the guidelines only specify 80 percent Sangiovese, and that the authorities allow international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 20 percent of either varietal is enough to change the structure and personality of the wine into something much more forward. It’s more robust, perhaps showing oak and age-worthiness. And because the guidelines only specify a minimum alcohol… it can climb higher, into the 14-15 percent range sought by many consumers, especially those in America.
So which is the real Chianti?
Our mid-September trip to Castello di Gabbiano showed us a full range of Chianti wines, from acid-driven, chuggable table wine at Dario Cecchini’s steakhouse to serious reserve bottlings like the Castello’s “Belleza,” which earned the mark of “Gran Selezione.” The Gran Selezione is a new moniker created by the Chianti Classico authorities to designate the most prestigious wines in the region. A panel of winemakers and region experts grades submitted wines on taste and overall character, approving only the “best.” As a whole, the new practice is a clearly bold move to bolster Chianti’s claim as a region producing high quality wines … and to appease to an international export market that demands high-scoring, slightly bigger wines than the kinds of Chianti wines brought to U.S. shores years ago.
And oh, those wines. Straw-covered bottles and served alongside crockery thin-crust pizza, or Americanized Italian red-sauce dishes on checkered table cloths. They were nothing to write home about, and that’s part of the problem for many regions like Chianti that used to produce such inferior wine for export. On the one hand, some of traditional Chianti wine has always been a little lighter, more like good Beaujolais or Loire than ultra serious Napa or Bordeaux. And as in places like rural France, there has always been a culture of table wine or home-made wine, which wasn’t ever intended to compete in magazines for top awards. Moreover, the Chianti region historically viewed wine and food as nearly inseparable — both originate from the terroir of the region. The downside is that, at export, these lighter Chiantis earned a reputation for being second-rate, downgrading the region as a whole. New winemakers and large holding companies believe Chianti has the potential to be a world class region, and so they’ve taken it upon them to produce something different… more developed, bigger, riper. And as in many places around the world, this generation of winemakers and companies is doing so through the use of modern technology and winemaking techniques, to get the most from grapes while meeting international demands. It’s smart business!
But again, that brings us back to our original question… what is Chianti?
At the Castello, I tried several times to push winemaker Federico Cerelli on the question, urging him to elaborate on his vision and what motivates him to make the kind of wine that he does. I wanted to get at the soul of Chianti wine, at least from his perspective. He is a very smart, personable winemaker, and he clearly knows the kind of wine he wants — and needs — to produce, to achieve the results he and his employers want.
Parsing that last sentence out, Federico is, at his core, a modern winemaker. He is well-trained, and the latest releases from Castello di Gabbiano all have a level of quality derived from that training. Looking at the range of wines and Federico’s influence on the winemaking of Castello since coming on board and since the the property was purchased by the Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, there is a progressional blending of New and Old World attributes as the wines increase in price. The reserve wines, including the Gran Selezione “Belleza,” have an enhanced mouthfeel and gravitas that exudes a certain richness, aging and “proper” correction. You know these are good, ripe, balanced wines. They are well-made and display a consistent value-quality proposition.
For this, Federico and the Castello team should be congratulated, for they accomplished the very rare feat of producing good wine at affordable prices, and secondly, producing good wine that many people will enjoy. One thing gives me pause, though, or at least raises the specter of the original question again — that the wine I enjoyed most at Castello wasn’t a reserve bottling, but the standard Chianti Classico, which is lower in alcohol and lighter overall. And, in discussing that fact with the Castello’s chef, Francesco Berardinelli, we seemed to be in general agreement that the cuisine of Chianti harkens back to these kinds of wines, although there is a clear time and place for more expressive, age-worthy bottlings.
So, what is Chianti? Is it a lighter, more local style? Is it something increasingly worldly and serious? Is it old-fashioned? Is it modern? Is it more natural? Is it more corrected/influenced?
Chianti, as it turns out, is all of these things. The beauty is that we, the consumer, can select a Chianti for every occasion.
A note in advance — I approach any and all media trips with a bit of skepticism, in no small part because I make a living in the world of public relations. It takes a great deal for me to be impressed, and there’s a sort of natural apprehension about “giving in” too easily. You don’t want to be that wine writer.
So, when approached by the team from Castello di Gabbiano about an opportunity to visit their estate in Tuscany, I accepted, but with a whole host of immediate questions. For one, as most readers of this blog will readily realize, I usually write about small, up-and-coming winemakers in lesser known regions. Secondly, it almost sounded too good to be true — a 12th century castle, formerly home to some of Florence’s most famous noble families, overlooking more than 300 acres of vines in the storied Chianti Classico.
The big question, then — would it be overdone? Over-commercialized? Lacking in authentic character? Could a “big name” castle retreat still satisfy a geeky hipster wine nerd like me?
The answer couldn’t have been more resounding. I adored my time at the Castello, to the point that I might want to question my journalistic integrity. As a writer, you sometimes get that weird feeling of actually enjoying and liking the subjects you’re talking about, and that’s a dangerous thing.
Still, I’ll try to be objective — and even while tempering my personal enthusiasm for the Castello’s gorgeous landscape views and hospitable staff, I can tell you that if you’re ever in the Chianti region, you would do well to make a stop in San Casciano Val di Pesa. To be sure, I have my quibbles and questions, but at the end of the day … few places on earth could be as relaxing, enjoyable and smile-inducing.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll pen a series of articles diving into issues as far-ranging as authentic Tuscan cooking (and the lack of salt in the region’s bread) to the questions surrounding viticulture and wine-making in a region best-known for hay-wrapped bottles doubling as candlestick holders. But for now, let us meditate on the Castello, and why it’s worth writing about.
In all sincerity, one must confess that there is a certain elitism present in the wine industry, and especially in the industry of wine writing. We all want to experience the unattainable — the rarer the better, the more exclusive the better, the more unusual the better. And so, we also see a particular strain among us who might disapprove of “corporate” wine estates, owned and operated by large international holding companies. Castello di Gabbiano, which is held by the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates (which also owns Beringer in California), is one such label.
Long story short, Castello di Gabbiano produces a lot of wine — definitely more than many of the producers about which I’ve been known to wax poetically. And because of that, there most definitely would be a segment of the wine cognoscenti who might write off the estate, simply because it’s bigger than they would like. Winemaker Federico Cerelli, a native of Tuscany, is a far cry from the kind of eccentric vignerons celebrated in too-cool-for-school Paris natural wine bars. The wines themselves don’t smell like manure or oxidation. They don’t have that racing electric acidity, or that shocking drinkability, or that uncanny uniqueness that might characterize some small-label wines. What they do have is universal appeal and a global distribution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact remains that some wine snobs (the only word to accurately describe such an attitude) might instead choose to solely define “good wine” as “wine other people can’t have.”
The truth, though, is that this kind of snobbery resembles an unfair demonization of things we all like and should appreciate more. It’s an inversion of values, in the interest of pushing back against something that seems too comfortable if you’re rough around the edges. The Castello is gorgeous. It’s historic. It’s peaceful. And though the wines aren’t going to radically change your perspective on what wine can or should be, they’re carefully calibrated and dialed in. The entry-level Chiantis are sure to please, and given their ready availability, you’d be a fool to pass them up. The higher end bottles have a seriousness that rewards careful contemplation.
And the Castello’s food, from chef Francesco Berardinelli? OK, you’ve got me. Now you know the real reason I fell so hard for the Castello.
Berardinelli’s name won’t appear in any “top chef” listings, but he’s the real deal — exuberant, enthusiastic, and hell-bent on not achieving the kind of fame his cooking deserves. His sourcing is impeccable — take the suckling pig, from a farm and butcher dating back centuries — and his training superb (he was once a consultant for Alain Ducasse). But now, at the Castello, he nearly hides, content at producing rustic Tuscan food out of a two-person kitchen adjacent to a vineyard, fruit trees, and herb boxes. In short, he’s living the dream.
Berardinelli’s restraint — that he isn’t just OK with, but happy to serve country-side dishes like braised wild boar in an era of over-reaching young chefs — ultimately might be the best way to explain the Castello’s charm. It’s isn’t going to blow you out of the water. It’s not the Selosse hotel, or Frank Cornelissen’s vines on the side of Mt. Etna in Sicily. But it is what it is — and that is a retreat, a happy place, an escape. It’s luxuriously comforting, like a bowl of Berardinelli’s homemade pasta with tomatoes found only outside Florence.
And if that doesn’t make you smile, doesn’t make you yearn to visit, then nothing will. This isn’t a place to sip cult wines or make a discovery that will impress your wine geek friends. But it is a place to walk amid olive groves in the moonlight, full of wine and wild boar, and to delight in the simple things that make life — and Tuscany — so special.
Depth and breadth are two words frequently at odds in books attempting to survey a topic as far-ranging and diverse as wine.
Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: A Complete Guide, by “World Wine Guys” Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, attempts to tackle that challenge, at least for that sub-equatorial subset of the vinous world. In many respects it is an admirable book, with a definite knowledge of the topic and a respect for hundreds of the most venerated producers in South America, Australia and Africa. But it almost goes without saying that a book this broad will come up short in some respects.
At issue are the book’s intentions. Is it a book of producers, akin to a survey of wines you should drink and purchase, or is it an educational exploration of the southern hemisphere? Did the writers simply wish to enumerate the many wines worth your time, or did they want to tell you what makes those wines special or unique? And perhaps most glaringly, did they want the book to stand as a reference tome, or did they want you to actually read it cover-to-cover?
For the first half of those questions, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere is more than up to the heavy task at hand. In clear, concise prose, DeSimone and Jenssen inform you that so-and-so producer is based in so-and-so town and produces so-and-so wines of so-and-so quality. Later, there are a handful of interviews with winemakers and a sampling of recipes to pair with the wines.
Of course, it is possible that I expected something different from this book, and thus approached it from the get-go with standards it could never meet. In fact, I am almost certain of this, because I seriously doubt DeSimone and Jenssen would be unable to write an equally informative book about southern hemisphere wines while attempting to tell us more about the geography, growing conditions, winemaking methods, etc. in play.
That sort of book may be of greater value to the general reader, with its characterizations of wine types and styles, and its greater emphasis on appellations and grapes. For the wine professional, however, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere should find a good home on a bookshelf. Whether you’re a sommelier, importer, distributor or simply a real nut about purchasing specific labels, you’ll find the book’s hundreds of pages worth the investment.
Wines of the Southern Hemisphere is available now from Sterling Epicure for $24.95.
I’ll confess: I don’t have much affection for the traditional Thanksgiving desserts.
Pumpkin pie? Homemade with real pumpkin, it frequently lacks punch and vigor. From the can? Too sweet and akin to puree. From a bakery? The crust is never right, most likely because so many bakeries substitute ingredients for expensive real butter. From a restaurant that sells pies? Close, but often artificial — it’s no longer pumpkin pie, just some weird orange custard that tastes like cinnamon and cloves.
For dessert, I want something creamy, sweet, comforting and yet still very flavorful. I adore “in your face” flavors. Pumpkin pie doesn’t cut it.
But you know what does? Good ol’-fashioned Southern buttermilk pie. It’s cheap to make but it packs a wallop of sweetness and acidity that’ll send you over the edge and into a coma of deliciousness. And we all know there’s nothing better than a dish mostly composed of fat and sugar.
In favor of lightening things up? I’ve added a second recipe for a super simple, almost spicy ginger sorbet. It’ll enliven the richness of the pie and cut through the fatty, acidic buttermilk.
You can use a homemade pie crust from your favorite recipe or an unbaked store-bought shell if in a pinch. To be honest, because the pie is baked in the shell, if your crust of choice isn’t thick and sturdy enough, it may just be easier to go the store-bought route. The pie is so sweet and acidic that you won’t lose much in the way of flavor and you can rest assured that the crust won’t be too soggy.
Start by preheating your oven to 315 degrees. If using a homemade crust, roll out the dough and place it in a pan. If using a store-bought crust, let it come to room temperature.
Now make the pie filling:
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 stick of butter (4 ounces) at room temperature
6 egg yolks
3-4 tablespoons flour
1 tsp of vanilla extract
Beat the sugar, room temperature butter, egg yolks and vanilla. Add the flour, beat, then add the buttermilk.
Fill the pie shell and bake for about 50 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes. The pie is done when the filling is somewhat firm to touch and it jiggles just a bit when you shake the pan. Leave to cool on the counter. A gourmet touch would be to dust the top with sugar and brulee with a kitchen torch!
In the spirit of making everything as easy and simple as possible…
3 cups of REAL ginger beer (available at most Whole Foods, Caribbean markets, etc.)
1 piece of very fresh young ginger (still yellow and juicy)
1 cup of sugar
Half cup of brown sugar
Combine the ginger beer and sugars in a pot. Grate the young ginger root into it and bring to a high simmer, stirring to make sure the sugar is incorporated. Turn the heat down and let the syrup steep for 30 minutes. Strain and cool overnight.
Churn in an ice cream machine a few hours before service.
Every year, we gather around the Thanksgiving table. No matter what part of the country you’re from, whether you’re conservative or liberal, white collar or blue collar, a long-time resident or a recent immigrant, chances are you’re plenty familiar with this yearly epicurean celebration. It’s a uniting holiday across the nation, perhaps even more so than Christmas due to that holiday’s particular religious significance.
There’s only one problem: Most of the time, Thanksgiving isn’t all that epicurean. The food is blah — it’s all the same, it’s overcooked, it’s dried out. The veggies are squishy, the stuffing a shade of brownish gray. What’s that for a celebration?
This year, let’s make a promise to do it right.
Luckily, we here at Wine Lines have a menu that will redefine your Thanksgiving experience. I’ve made a point of making it accessible and yet simultaneously interesting, with big, bold, clean flavors. Vegetables are everywhere, and chances are you won’t feel overweight and almost sick even after overeating, because there’s less fat, salt and sugar than usual.
Not just that, almost everything is homemade. You want to impress your guests? You’ve come to the right place.
Thanksgiving is decidedly a rustic, American holiday. When composing the menu, I wanted something that would be equally at home in the Midwest country as it would on the coast of Cape Cod. We have an incredible bounty of produce and ingredients here in the States, and it would do us well to pay homage to what’s in season and what’s available locally.
In today’s post, we’ll cover the first four starters from the Wine Lines Thanksgiving Menu. Those are:
• Homemade bread and butter
• House-cured salmon
• Local cheeses
• Oysters with celery-juniper granite
To begin, let’s cover the obvious: Because so many of these recipes are simple and only feature a handful of ingredients, it goes without saying that you should buy the best ingredients possible. There’s no excuse for not going to your local farmers market. It’s a big day! Or take cheese for instance — why buy cheap, overly processed cheddar when every state has artisan cheese producers?
My bread recipe follows Portland baker Ken Forkish’s in Flour, Salt, Water, Yeast. Forkish’s recipe is one of the first bread recipes I’d deem nearly bullet-proof — it’s easy to understand and hard to screw up. Though I suggest picking up his book to examine the recipe in more detail, this version should serve as a good starting point. My adaptations are to make the measurements and explanations even simpler. The nuance is gone, but hey … it’s rustic bread. Just enjoy it. You will need a small cast-iron dutch oven with a lid — it must be able to withstand the 500 degree oven.
Makes Two Loaves – Adapted From Ken Forkish
Active Dry Yeast
Method (to bake on Thanksgiving Day):
1) The night before at 10 p.m., mix 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of very warm water and 1/8 teaspoon of yeast in a large bowl. This is called a “poolish.” Cover and let sit for 12-14 hours in a 72-76 degree room.
2) At 10 a.m. – noon the next day (after 12-14 hours), add 500 grams more flour, 250 grams more water, 3/4 teaspoon of yeast and 3 nice teaspoons of fine sea salt. Mix well with a big spoon, then your hands. The dough will be wet and shaggy. If it sticks to your hands too much, dab them in a bit of water. Cover.
3) After one hour, “fold” the dough. Reach in and lift the bottom of the dough, then fold over the top. Repeat a few times all around and cover again.
4) After another 1-2 hours, when the dough has approximately doubled in size, gently dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough in half and using the minimum amount of flour necessary to keep your hands from sticking, shape into two round loaves. A pastry cutter can help to keep the dough from sticking to the counter and will help you shape the bread.
5) Place the shaped loaves into floured proofing baskets or small bowls lined with clean, floured, non-terry kitchen towels. Cover with a towel and wait one more hour.
6) While the loaves proof, preheat the oven and dutch oven to 500 degrees.
7) After the hour of proofing, gently dump the first loaf out on the counter. Place the other in a much cooler spot, like the front of refrigerator, to slow the proofing while the first cooks. Carefully remove the ridiculously hot dutch oven from the oven — be careful!!! — open it and place the loaf in. Dust lightly with flour. Cover and place in the oven.
8) Uncover after 30 minutes of baking. Bake uncovered for another 25-30 minutes, until dark brown and crusty.
9) Ten minutes prior to the first loaf being done, remove the second from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. Preheat the dutch oven again and repeat per the first loaf.
If there’s something better than homemade bread, it’s homemade butter.
Wait, you’ve never made butter?! It’s impossibly easy!
In fact, calling this a recipe would be a bit ridiculous. It’s as good as the cream you buy, so buy the absolute best from a local dairy farmer. Here’s the method:
1) Let the thick, rich cream come up around 60-70 degrees. Pour into a stand mixer and start churning on moderate speed.
2) The cream will thicken before the butter separates from the buttermilk. You should wind up with small, bright, yellow curds in a pool of liquid.
3) Strain the liquid and squeeze the curds repeatedly to get rid of any remaining liquid. In a largish bowl, make a bath with very cold water and “wash” the curds. Squeeze again to further expunge any remaining liquid.
4) Store. For a nice presentation, roll the butter in parchment and slice into nicely shaped individual rounds. Season with the best flaky salt you can buy — something like Maldon or gray sea salt from the coast of France would be excellent! You can also season with a wide variety of spices, herbs, even seaweed!
Herbs and Spices, if desired
Like making butter, curing good fish is hardly difficult. It just requires a little bit of patient and excellent sourcing.
Because you’re essentially eating this fish raw, remember to order only the best quality salmon. The same curing recipe can be used for other fish, too. Cured bluefish with a drizzle of spicy and acidic lime-jalapeno sauce is a treat. And if you want a certain flavor profile, experiment with adding herbs and spices to the salt and sugar.
To be sure, this isn’t a real “preservative” cure — it’s just a light 36-hour one that renders the fish sliceable, a bit briny and absolutely delicious. Serve with crackers and local cheeses:
1) Remove the salmon skin from the filet. Rinse the fish and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels.
2) Line a shallow pan with a good deal of salt and sugar in a 1:1 combination. Place the salmon filet on top and mix to coat. Add more 1:1 salt and sugar combination, toss to coat again and cover the entire pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 36 hours, draining liquid ever 12.
3) After the fish is lightly cured, rinse the salt and sugar off under cold running water. Dry again and slice thinly.
Salty, briny oysters — local if possible
1 bunch of celery
3 tablespoons of crushed juniper berries
For decades, Americans celebrated their local oysters. Mark Twain wrote dozens of times about his love for a particular variety, and our coasts and rivers were chock-full of native species. Industrialization, pollution and environmental degradation led to dwindling stocks, however, and many American oyster populations were threatened.
Today, though, thanks to many enterprising fishermen and businesses, the American oysters are making a comeback. Even better, they’re in season! What better way to kick off your Thanksgiving party than slurping down a few briny specimens, topped with a refreshing celery-juniper granite. It’s a refreshing, crave-worthy bite that will get the night rolling:
1) In a small pot, heat a cup of water, a few tablespoons of sugar and crushed juniper berries to make a moderately sweet syrup. Let the juniper berries infuse for 30 minutes to an hour, never letting the syrup boil or caramelize. Strain and cool.
2) In a blender or juicer, juice the celery stalks. If using a blender, blitz a bit of celery at a time to get the mix going, then strain through a chinois to leave only the juice. Season with fresh lime juice and salt. Mix in the juniper syrup — you’ll probably need 3/4 cup.
3) Pour the celery juice and juniper blend into a shallow tray and place in the freezer. Every 45 minutes to an hour, stir and scrape with a fork to flake up the solution. After 4-5 hours, depending on your freezer, you should have a refreshing, flavorful granite.
4) At service, shuck the oysters. Be careful to shuck them cleanly — nobody likes to eat dirt and shell particles. Top with a forkful of granite and the faintest dusting of celery salt. Delicious!!
Question? Concern? Nervous about cooking Thanksgiving Dinner? Send an email to email@example.com and ask me a question.
Eddie Osterland was the first American to achieve the title of Master Sommelier. He is also more than adept at the art of cool business deals and political maneuvering, as shown in his new book, Power Entertaining: Secrets to Building Lasting Relationships, Hosting Unforgettable Events and Closing Big Deals.
In clear, accessible prose, Eddie gives us insight into an all-too-frequently forgotten aspect of entertaining — the need to impress guests with a mastery of the things they don’t know (or do know, and will thus critique you on). For some baffling reason, this isn’t a skill most businessmen have. They’re fine in the board room, but at the dinner table or the bar, they’re not quite as calculating and on top of their game.
The good news, then, is that Eddie’s book reads like a how-to for the uninitiated. Having spent the last several years in Washington working for lobbyists and advocacy groups, I’ve had the luxury of living in a world where “making deals” and “wining and dining” are treated as an essential skill. But elsewhere, the need isn’t quite so clear, and so Eddie more than adequately drives home the point: You need to know your wine, you need to host dramatic (if outside the box) events, and you need to schmooze and booze with the best of them. Eddie’s humor and personal anecdotes are memorable, and they reinforce these lessons.
Of course, knowing these things and being able to do them aren’t one and the same, and that’s where Eddie can’t really help you out. He can share insight about different wine regions (and he does, in a surprisingly handy way, despite glossing over regions such as the Loire Valley), he can share insight about where to buy gourmet products (and he does), and he can share insight about the kinds of events you might consider having, but what he can’t do — and nobody could do — is transform you overnight into a savvy, quotable deal-maker with a deep network of connections. In other words, the truth of the matter is that no book can replace being out in the field, needing to talk to people, shake their hands and carry on mind-numbing (but ultimately effective) conversations.
So how do you do it, then? I can’t tell you exactly, and neither can Eddie. But Power Entertaining at least goes where few books have gone before, approaching wine and food as a vehicle for business deals and getting things done. If that’s your scene, picking up a copy might not be a bad idea — after all, more information is always a good thing when you’re wine-ing to impress.
Power Entertaining: Secrets to Building Lasting Relationships, Hosting Unforgettable Events and Closing Big Deals from America’s 1st Master Sommelier is out now from Wiley for $21.95
Louis Antoine Luyt isn’t like most winemakers in Chile.
If his name wasn’t enough of an indication (he’s French), his wines will fill in any gaps in understanding. They’re pure, focused, almost Pinot Noir-esque — nothing like the big, bombastic reds many Americans associate with South America. They have the unexplainable “liveliness” that some natural wines have, where the flavors are so readily apparent and the wine just glides off your tongue.
That “different” quality compared to other Chilean wines is anything but unintentional. Luyt’s route to getting there is intentionally non-interventionist; the former dishwasher later picked up an interest in producing wines with character and distinction, a search that led him back to France for his training.
As Luyt explained in an interview with Louis/Dressner Selections:
“At first, I was surprised how homogenous Chilean wine tasted to me; this sparked an interest in local wine and the people who made it. What I came to realize is that there are incredible vineyard sites here, and even though a large part of it is completely industrialized, there were still some independently run parcels. Everyone told me they were worthless, but I didn’t believe it.
In 2001, I came back to France to work a harvest. I ended up working for Phillipe Pacalet, and discovered there was a viticulture/oenology school in Beaune. I begrudgingly went back to Chile after that harvest, but came back to France in 2002, determined to go to school. The idea was to apply what I would learn back in Chile. But before that, I wanted some work experience to see if this was really what I wanted to do. I eventually hired by Louis Jadot’s in Morgon; I learned a lot there, and had a great experience. I then worked the 2002 harvest in Burgundy, followed by my schooling in Beaune. I met Matthieu Lapierre there, and this was my introduction to natural wine. I got to visit the estate many times, and to spend some special moments with Marcel.”
In Europe and France in particular, the idea of natural wine and less intrusive winemaking techniques is gaining widespread acceptance thanks to a generation of sommeliers, chefs and young drinkers. In Paris, it’d be more shocking to see a new wine bar flaunt sulfur-added wine than it would be to encounter an oxidized and cidery unfiltered white wine. But in Chile, the concept of natural wine is still a new one — or maybe not:
“It’s a little odd talking about all this stuff from a Chilean point of view, since every single peasant here makes natural wine. But then again, these peasants don’t sell their wines much further than a few doors down the road from their farms. I’m the only guy doing this and exporting it, and I’m the first to claim the wines to be made “this way.” All my oenologist friends out here think i’m absolutely crazy, and this is why I have less and less oenologist friends!
Being in Chile protects me from all the pissing contests and mini-chapels about natural wine. I’m not part of the A.V.N, but I know that everyone in France respects what I do. I’m expressing unique terroirs, and that’s what’s important.”
On this point, Luyt is right on the money. His wines really are unique, and I’m unbelievably happy to have tried them. Here’s my tasting note for his Carignan:
As if natural Chilean wine wasn’t unusual enough, here’s a natural Chilean wine – a Carignan, no less – that is absolutely silky smooth and easy to drink. At 12.9 percent alcohol, it is more Old than New World, reflecting the profile of its maker’s French upbringing and general noncomfority. Delicious upon opening, but absolutely stunning after an hour decant. Delicate cherry fruit, Asian spices, meaty duck, woodsy pipe tobacco and black tea all glide across the palate. Lithe but not shy, this wine manages to balance the ”liveliness” of many natural wines with the tremendous fruit potential of South American reds.
Wine Lines Rating: 91
As someone who has tasted my fair share of Virginia wines from across the Commonwealth, I generally will not make the inflated defense of local bottlings that some of my peers will make. Though I don’t think it fair to dismiss Virginia wines out of hand – the Viognier really can be quite good – I also don’t think there is any way to avoid talking about some of the very obvious flaws with most of them: Green fruit, a certain musty quality, tannins and alcohol that aren’t quite incorporated, etc.
Long story short, it’s still kind of hit or miss if we’re looking at Virginia wine objectively. The good news is that when you roll the dice, there’s at least a chance you’ll get lucky.
Such was the case during a trip last week through Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville in the Monticello appellation. While in town for a meeting, I made it a point of dropping by a few wineries I’d never had the chance to visit.
Stinson Vineyards is one of the newest boutique wineries in a state that seems hell-bent on adding new wineries every week. Little more than a year old, Stinson’s current releases are based on grapes bought nearby; this harvest should provide the first grapes from their actual property.
Still, despite this situation, visiting Stinson now is a pleasure, not least because of their welcoming (if entirely unpretentious) tasting room in a renovated garage. The rolling countryside of Virginia offers up a scenic backdrop and the current releases are enjoyably accessible. It’s refreshing to see a Virginia winery not aim to replicate California or Oregon styles – why not just let Virginia wine show Virginia qualities?
Stinson’s affordable rose, crafted from 100 Mourvedre, is a great example. Initially fruit-driven with cranberry and grapefruit notes, there’s a palpable presence of fruitwood smoke that envelops the mouth. With only 75 cases produced, snap this one up before I visit Stinson again!
The world of wine is infinite, and so Zraly’s job is not enviable: Condense thousands of years of wine study and thousands of facts and figures about appellations, grapes, producers and more into a few hundred pages. Then condense it even further by writing it in a way that is accessible to the everyman.
Zraly triumphantly succeeds, and it’s why he’s sold more than three million copies of his book. Reading his book is like sitting down with a surprisingly normal wine geek, then asking, “What’s this?” and “Why?” over and over. It helps, too, that the newest edition from Sterling Epicure also is enhanced with new video smart phone tags and more than 1,300 wine audio pronunciation files.
What else could we ask for?
Again with the acknowledgement that this may be the best introduction to the endlessly diverse subject of wine, I wish the newest version of Zraly’s book took a closer look at winemaking practices. With so much talk these days not only about biodynamic/natural wine, but also the merits (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask) of different aging containers and “Parker-ized” wines, it might make sense to have a more in-depth discussion of how different people are growing grapes and turning them into the delicious beverage we all love and appreciate.
Secondly, and perhaps more apparent to me given my personal affection for the wines of the Loire Valley, Zraly’s writing on the white wines of France in particular (Chapter Two) strikes me as inadequate. I know, the book is written for general consumers (not nerdy hipster wine drinkers), most of whom place more value in reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (wines that receive their own more in-depth chapters). But for someone who claims to be “enamored with the quality and diversity of the white wines of the Loire Valley,” Zraly could do a better job.
As he tells it, there are four main styles in Loire: Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet, Sancerre and Vouvray. Ignoring the fact that what we’re really talking about are appellations (in the case of Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre and Vouvray), what’s more frustrating about this horrendous oversimplification is that it ignores the real intricacy and diversity of a region, and therefore slights the wines in question. Chenin Blanc – regarded by many wine writers and sommeliers as one of the preeminent white wine grapes, with the capacity for untold complexity – receives passing mention, and that’s just not good enough when the white wines of Germany receive page after page of thorough, delightfully clear explanation.
This complaint coincides with the last area of possible improvement if and when Zraly decides to revise his book: With so many new wine regions receiving critical praise these days, he might consider expanding his section on lesser known wines. Or, recognizing that the wines of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand are no longer “off the beaten path,” they should likely receive their own sections. That’d make room for some of France and Italy’s more obscure appellations as well as countries like Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Georgia.
All in all, though, let us again remind that Zraly has been tasked with the impossible, and yet still comes close to succeeding. The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, first published more than 20 years ago, still comes highly recommended, especially for anyone “just starting out” in the wonderfully wide world of wine.
The joy of The New York Times’ newly released Book of Wine is not its comprehensive nature, or its potential to provide an educational overview of grape growing and wine making globally. Rather, this collection of short columns – dozens and dozens! – should be treasured and valued for its fascinating breadth of coverage, its countless nuggets of vinological miscellany, and most of all, its devotion to sterling English journalism.
For the wine-obsessed and those readers who already have a good grasp of the basics from vineyard to bottle, there might be no better gift as the holidays quickly approach. From a fascinating journey into Chinatown’s illegal rice wine sale, to an ode to Jura’s counter-culture bottlings, to older, historically significant columns, the Book of Wine is chock-full of stories.
It’s that word in particular – stories – that sets the Book of Wine so far apart from other wine books on the shelves. For one, a time-pressed reader might here enjoy a quick tale just by flipping to a random new page. It’s a tremendously rewarding process, and with so many columns collected in one place, I imagine you could stay at it for quite a while.
Even more so, though, the story-driven aspect of the columns provides the reader with a take on wine that goes further than grapes and liquid hedonism: There are people, there are places, there is history. The smart, pointed prose of Frank Prial, Eric Asimov, Florence Fabricant, William Grimes, Terry Robards and others form a patchwork narrative quilt that breathes life into a subject that might otherwise seem corked.
Surely, a nitpicker could attempt to highlight flaws or shortcomings in individual columns, in an attempt to build a case against the New York Times’ wine authority. But to do so would miss the point of this book, which easily makes up for any occasionally questionable assertion with its power to convey wine as a sweeping, grandiose topic, rife with intricacies and fascination. Informative, challenging, charming and even funny at times, the Book of Wine comes highly recommended.
The New York Times’ Book of Wine is available now from Sterling Publishing for $24.95.