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As spring blooms, Sancerre launches season for whites

Sancerre with lentil salad and grilled chicken
Pat has fond memories of traipsing through the Loire Valley one summer. As much as the rolling green land and the amazing fairy-tale châteaux, she remembers the food-friendly local wines. Then this winter we encountered some Cabernet Franc that reminded us how good Loire Valley reds can be with fish and lighter summer fare. The valley is home base to some of the greatest French wine grapes not called Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. With summer on the horizon, we realized it was time to rectify our lack of attention to Loire Valley wines—some of which are the quintessential sips at the end of long, warm day.

We got a respite from our chilly, damp spring last week in time for the forsythia to burst into bloom. It was warm enough to light the grill, so we brushed some lightly brined chicken with sesame oil and slow-grilled it over indirect heat. The non-vinous star of the meal was the accompanying cold lentil salad with crumbled goat cheese. (See recipe below.)

The wine was a 2015 Sancerre from Domaine de la Perrière. It’s the flagship white of Saget Perrière, ninth generation winemakers from Pouilly-sur-Loire, and worth far more than its $24 list price. U.S. consumers often dismiss Sancerre as “merely Sauvignon Blanc.” That’s a little like saying that a grand cru Burgundy is “only Chardonnay.” Sancerre is one of the best-rounded expressions of Sauvignon Blanc—full of luscious white fruit, full but not tart acids, and a minerality that cuts through unctuous cheeses or fish. This particular Sancerre has a remarkable freshness from the flower aromas of the first sniff to the lingering lemon zest in the aftertaste. It’s made entirely with wild yeasts and aged at least three months on the lees, where it picks up some bread-y aromas and an almost meaty mouth feel.

FRENCH LENTIL SALAD


This recipe is adapted from a version that David Leibovitz published in My Paris Kitchen. He has another variation on his web site (www.davidlebovitz.com), and we’ve found additional variants in several French cookbooks. But we credit Leibovitz for turning us on to the dish, which we’ve altered and adapted over the years. Thanks, David.

Makes 6 cups

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups Le Puy green lentils
4 cups water
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup peeled and finely diced carrot
1 cup peeled and finely diced celery
1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
1 shallot, peeled and minced
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped to small pea size
1 cup crumbled fresh chèvre

Directions

Place lentils in a 3-quart saucepan. Add 4 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt to cover lentils by about 2 inches. Add bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, and onion and cook 5 minutes more. Be careful not to overcook lentils.

While lentils are cooking, whisk together the vinegar, salt, mustard, oil, and shallot in a large bowl.

Drain the lentils and vegetables well. Stir them into the dressing while still warm, coating the lentils completely. Remove the bay leaf and let mixture cool to room temperature, turning it over a few times as it cools to distribute dressing. Add a few twists of black pepper and stir in parsley, walnuts, and goat cheese before serving. We like to serve in small crowns molded in a 1/3 cup measuring cup.

05

05 2017

Realizing a 150-year dream: Ravine Vineyard Estate

bottles at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Norma Jean Lowery Harber’s family has farmed the 34 acres of Ravine Vineyard Estate (ravinevineyard.com) in St. Davids since 1867. Indeed, her great-grandfather planted the Niagara region’s first commercial vineyard here in 1869 and the land was in orchards for many decades. Norma Jean and her husband Blair Harber bought the farm from the rest of the family in 2004. They set about creating organic vineyards and an organic winery. Norma Jean’s father had grown wine grapes, and the couple replanted vineyards to focus on the three classic Bordeaux reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) along with Chardonnay, Riesling, and small amounts of Gewürtztraminer.

Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantThe wines are reason enough reason to visit Ravine. As luck had it, we missed the tasting room hours. But we had dinner in the farm restaurant looking out on the kitchen garden and down to some of the vineyards. And, naturally, we drank Ravine wines with dinner. The Harbers practice biodynamic principles in their restaurant gardens as well as in their vineyards. The restaurant focuses on highly local products—including the Berkshire hogs raised on the farm. A smokehouse on the property allows executive chef Ross Midgley to feature dishes with cured pork. The chef also preserves local bounty to extend locavore dining into the less fecund seasons.

Charcuterie and Merlot


Ravine charcuterie plate

In fact, we started dinner with the chef’s charcuterie platter. The meaty anchors were honey ham, sliced coppa, and sausage—all cured downstairs in the charcuterie closet. A pot of heavenly chicken liver parfait was great for spreading on the country French baguette, and the pork country pâté en croute was just unctuous enough to benefit from the tangy pickled fennel and shallots and homemade coarse mustard.

On our server’s recommendation, we drank Ravine Merlot with the dish. Merlot is the most round-heeled of the Bordeaux grapes, ripening to voluptuous fullness even in Niagara’s short season. Ravine’s version is soft and round, but it’s not sloppy. Nine months in French barrique disciplines the fruit.

Carrot soup and Riesling


Carrot ginger soup at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantRavine’s restaurant has a nice touch with its soup of the day. It serves each bowl with a savory sour cream and chive muffin. That was especially nice with a bowl of carrot-ginger soup topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The accompanying wine was the house Riesling. Like the Merlot, it is a fruit-forward wine with a good acidity that brings out the brightness of the grape. Characteristic of the Mosel clones, the aromatics are lightly floral.

Scallop and pasta with Sauvignon Blanc


Scallop and pasta at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantChef Midgley’s sense of food balance paired especially well with winemaker Martin Werner’s rendering of Sauvignon Blanc. The pasta of the day was a delightful tangle of homemade spaghetti with lovage and arugula, a butter sauce, and asparagus. Perched on top was a perfectly seared scallop. The range of textures and flavors in a small dish was striking.

The Sauvignon Blanc was even more striking. Werner treats it like Sancerre, fermenting with both wild yeast and a controlled inoculation, then barrel-aging on the lees. It has pronounced white grapefruit and lemon notes with a surprising creaminess. The crisp acidity cut through the butter sauce and highlighted the herbal notes of the vegetables in the dish.

Chardonnay for the main dishes


entrees at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Ravine ages its standard Chardonnay in small barrels of an assertive French oak. That produces a French-inflected wine with distinctively New World fruit. It is creamy and lightly oaky, lush with the apple and pear notes characteristic of cold-climate Chard. Those properties make it a good all-purpose white to pair with food—much as the Ravine Merlot is a good all-purpose red. We had a brined and smoked heritage half-chicken and a mixed-grains “risotto” made with shiitake mushrooms and an Ontario gouda-style cheese. The Chardonnay’s oakiness was a nice complement to the smoke in the chicken, and its broad acidity counterbalanced the richness of the cheese in the “risotto,” which had intense cereal flavors of its own from the wheat berries and barley.

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca) or Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Tasting Mondavi whites with New England seafood

Order counter at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in Noank, Connecticut

In our next lives we want to come back as Mondavis. Every American branch of the clan seems to have a purple thumb ever since Cesare and his sons Robert and Peter took over the Charles Krug winery in 1943. As one of two winemakers at the Michael Mondavi Family Estate (michaelmondavifamilyestate.com), Rob Mondavi Jr. has developed quite a reputation for his quality Napa Cabernets. So we wondered: What about the whites?

Abbott's Lobster in the Rough signIn New England, where we live, summer means seafood. While we might sip a red with bluefish, we really need white wines for the kings of ocean: oysters and lobster. So we tossed a bottle each of 2015 Emblem Chardonnay Carneros and 2015 Animo Napa Valley Heritage Sauvignon Blanc into a cooler, placed a bag of ice on top, and paid a visit to Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (abbottslobster.com).

We had a method to that madness. This Noank, Connecticut, seafood shack on the west side of the Mystic River is famous for the buttery hot lobster roll, a specialty of the Connecticut shore. Moreover, Abbott’s does not fry anything. All the seafood is raw, steamed, or grilled. No breading, no grease—just pure fish and shellfish. (For a view on wine with a lobster salad roll, see our post on rosé.)

Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with Connecticut bluepoint oysters

2015 Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with oysters


Mondavi’s Heritage Sauvignon Blanc represents an unusual French lineage. Back in the 1880s, the head of California’s State Viticultural Commission brought Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from Château de Yquem in Bordeaux back to the Golden State. The Mondavis got cuttings from the descendants of those vines and planted a new vineyard in 2006. In deference to the historic plant genetics, they even used the same 19th century root stock and trellising.

Talk about boutique wine! The vineyard is so small that the Mondavis were able to make exactly six barrels in 2015. The juice was fermented in French oak barrels and cellared in the fermentation vessels for nine months before bottling.

Connecticut bluepoint oystersThere’s no discounting the California terroir. The Animo vineyards are high on the slopes of Atlas Peak, where they stick up above the usual Napa cloud cover. This Sauvignon Blanc has a stony backbone reminiscent of good Sancerre with a more pronounced white peach and lime zest fruitiness. From the 11 different oysters available on the half shell at Abbott’s, we selected Connecticut Blue Points for their mild neutrality. They emphasized the mineral qualities of the wine, which was also fine for sipping without food in the salt air. It is a wine with multiple subtle layers. As it warms, some of the more floral flavors come forward, especially chamomile, bramble blossoms, and dandelions. Hints of mango and other petrol notes are held in check by the bright acidity. Retail ranges $57-$65.

Emblem Chardonnay with lobster roll

2015 Emblem Chardonnay with lobster


Michael Mondavi Family Estate grows the grapes for its Emblem Chardonnay in the southern part of the Los Carneros appellation, where fog from San Francisco Bay moderates the vineyard climate. There wasn’t much rain in 2015, but all that fog kept the grapes hydrated. Cold fall nights preserved a significant acidity, while a long hang time allowed for the typical Napa monster sugar development. (The dry wine runs close to 15% alcohol.)

The fruit in this wine is luscious and full-bodied. Alas, we caught the wine at an awkward phase in its development. (Think a teenager’s growth spurt.) The technical notes say the wine was aged 10 months in new French oak. Right now, it tastes more like a year in new American oak. The vanillin and other oak aromatics overwhelm the otherwise powerful fruit. We suspect it will improve a lot by next summer.

Even now, the 2015 Emblem Chardonnay works really well with buttered lobster. You’ve heard wine geeks babble about buttery Chardonnay, right? This one needed butter added. The salt of the lobster and the slight oiliness of the butter on lobster and bun alike showed the 2015 at its best. Next time you encounter an oaky Chardonnay, order a hot buttered lobster roll. You’ll be glad you did. Retail price varies $30-$35.

04

08 2017

Pouilly-Fumé complements asparagus-prosciutto risotto

asparagus prosciutto risotto with Pouilly-Fumé

We sang the praises of Sancerre a few weeks ago, lauding its round fruit combined with tart minerality. We are continuing to welcome the spring and summer seasons with other Loire Valley wines. Sancerre’s sister Sauvignon Blanc wine, Pouilly-Fumé, certainly has a strong family resemblance. With a bit flintier taste than Sancerre and a haunting smokiness, Pouilly-Fumé pairs wonderfully with asparagus. We had a couple of bottles of Saget La Perrière 2013 on hand when we acquired up a nice bundle of just-picked asparagus from the Connecticut River farms in Hadley, Massachusetts. We immediately thought of our favorite risotto treatment for the vegetable.

That recipe was created for Pinot Grigio, so it uses San Daniele prosciutto and Grana Padana cheese. It’s easy to adapt the recipe for the more assertive Pouilly-Fumé. We found that the stronger tastes of a good domestic prosciutto and an aged Parmigiano-Reggiano were better suited to complement the wine. The asparagus flavors emphasize some of the sharper notes with this pairing.

Like the same company’s Sancerre, the Saget La Perrière Pouilly-Fumé 2013 was cold-fermented in stainless steel tanks continuously chilled to stay below 64°F. Fermented entirely with wild yeasts, it ages several months on the lees. Fruit notes of grapefruit and pear are the most pronounced, with a lingering lusciousness of peach. The wine lingers on the palate with a freshness that combines with the umami of the cheese and prosciutto to form a lush tonic chord of flavor. Suggested retail is $28.

25

05 2017

Friuli has the right wine for asparagus


Asparagus is notoriously difficult to pair with wine because sulfur-bearing compounds in the stalks produce a chemical bouquet that clashes mightily with the tannins in red wine or in whites aged in oak. Eat asparagus and drink your average pinot noir or barrel-aged chardonnay and the wine will literally taste like garbage.

The French solve the problem by pairing asparagus with Loire Valley whites or white Sancerre-wines based on Sauvignon Blanc that never see a whiff of oak. But just as Friuli grows some of the best asparagus in Europe (see If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli), the northeast corner of Italy also produces the best wine to pair with it. Since 2008 it’s been on the market as Friulano, though in Friuli some people still call it Tocai Friulano. (The Hungarians got all huffy about “tocai,” so the Italians had to change the name.)

Recent genetic research reveals that Friulano is first cousin to Sauvignon Blanc and is the grape known in France as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. In France, it makes a thin wine with a “green” taste. In Friuli, where it’s considered a native grape, it makes a noble, forthright, steely white wine that is the perfect match to asparagus. (The acids also cut nicely through unctuous sauces like hollandaise).

Although Friulano is considered one of the best white wines in all of Italy, it is little known in North America. But I’m beginning to find some examples in better liquor stores near my home in Cambridge. The most intense and steely Friulano comes from the Colli Orientali region on the far eastern edge of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. My favorite is produced by Giorgio Colutta and sold under the Colutta label as Friulano Annata (about $16). Joe Bastianich (son of chef Lidia) also makes a very good version for around $1 more. Both are widely distributed.

15

05 2010