Archive for the ‘Wine’Category

Limestone mountains loom over Jerzu vines

Jerzu and Antichi Poderi winery
Famed for its local strain of Cannonau, the vineyards of Jerzu grow in a massive natural amphitheater scooped out of the side of a limestone range. The basin ascends from sea level to 750 meters, and the soils are all a mix of soft limestone and crumbly schist. The photo above shows the ridge and the hillside village of Jerzu. The industrial site in the foreground is the Antichi Poderi Jerzu cooperative (www.jerzuantichipoderi.it/en/), which produces 1.8 million bottles a year.

The predominance of limestone subsoil at Jerzu means that the vines have to live with scarce water that drains away underground. This drainage carves out great cavern systems for spectacular spelunking. On the outskirts of nearby Ulassai, the Grotta di Su Marmuri (www.grottasumarmuri.it) is open April through October for €10 guided tours. The journey takes about 90 minutes, including the time to climb a steep 100 meters up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. The descent of about 50 meters into the main chambers is much easier. Formed by water erosion during the Jurassic period, the cave system consists of several high-vaulted rooms with marvelously abstract stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Antichi Poderi Jerzu

Antichi Poderi winesThe limestone basin has been known for a thousand years or more as a good place to grow grapes. Records from A.D. 1103 show the people of Jerzu paying tribute to the papal legate in wine rather than gold. Eighteen owners of the oldest vineyards launched the Vitivinicola Antichi Poderi Jerzu wine-grower’s cooperative in 1950. (“Antichi poderi” translates as “ancient estates” or “ancient parcels.”) Now boasting 430 members, this powerhouse cooperative also carries out extensive historical and technical research on Jerzu winemaking.

The cooperative makes Cannonau wines in several styles and price points. Its basic young Cannonau di Sardegna, called Marghia, sells widely in the U.S. for less than $10. It is a bright young wine with raspberry notes and very soft tannins—easy-drinking red. The base riserva, called Chuerra, is made in much the same manner, but receives six months in large oak barrels and a year in small barrels before bottling. The combination of Slovenian and French oak imparts more structure to the tannins as well as pronounced cedar and eucalyptus herbal notes.

Josto Miglior Cannonau di Sardegna DOP Riserva Antichi PoderiThe Josto Miglior riserva, named for a famous Jerzu doctor, is a more bracing version of Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. I had the chance to taste a 2013, which was still very closed. The wine was elegant, but the tannins were so pronounced that they were like steel bones sticking out of a tuxedo. Then I tried a 2010, which was smooth and supple. The tannins and fruit were in perfect balance. Clearly, this wine rewards the patient buyer. It retails in the U.S. just under $20.

Lorenzo Pusole

Roberto and Lorenzo Pusole operate their family estate in Baunei, well north of Jerzu in a different range of hills. Located near Tortoli, their vineyards are planted in alluvial soils of mixed sand and stones. But the vines are very old. (The youngest were planted in 2004.) The slopes range 30 to 150 meters, and the brothers grow the white Vermentino grape on the lower reaches.

I’ve rarely met wine growers who have gone so all-in for organic production. “We live in the vineyards,” explained Roberto. “A healthy environment is essential to our well-being.” In addition to grapes, the brothers raise semi-feral Razza Sarda pigs and grow heritage varieties of grain and olives.

The Pusole brothers make two versions of Cannonau di Sardegna. Both are fermented in stainless steel without temperature control using wild yeasts. Both wines remain on the skins for about 12 days, or until the initial fermentation subsides. In spring, spontaneous malolactic fermentation softens the wines.

The version bearing the family name, Pusole, is aged 10 months in stainless steel and three months in bottle. It is a lusty Cannonau with pronounced dark berry fruit, hints of leather and anise, and a nice herbal finish.

Spectacular Sa Scala

The version labeled Sa Scala is not registered as a riserva, but it does spend 16 months in small French oak barrels and a year in bottle before release. Made only in limited quantities (2,200 bottles last year), it’s expensive for Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, retailing around €50. (It’s not yet available in the U.S.) The complexity is remarkable enough to justify the price. With a comparatively low 13.5 percent alcohol and little residual sugar, it nonetheless boasts ripe and supple tannins. The fruit is elegant instead of jammy. The nose is so redolent of classic Mediterranean scrub, that you can almost hear the bees buzz as they gather their nectar.

14

01 2017

Mamoiada and its wines evoke primal power

Francesco Sedilesu in Ballu Tundo vineyard near Mamoiada
The little community of Mamoiada sits at the foot of the two highest mountain ranges on Sardinia, the Gennargenti and the Supramonte. It is known for two powerful forces: ancient vines of Cannonau and atavistic carnival masks.

The most famous masks are the Mamuthones, shown here. The pre-Christian figures perform in ritual ceremonies that mark the turn of the agricultural calendar from the dark of winter toward the season of spring growth. The parade through Mamoidada predates Lenten carnivals. Men dressed in these shaggy black sheepskins with primitive wooden black masks dance slowly through town, each laden with more than 30 kilos of bronze bells. The figures appear first on January 17, the feast of Sant’ Antonio Abate, when the people of Mamoiada dance around bonfires lit on the town squares. They reappear in processions on the Sunday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Mamoiada’s museum building includes an archaeological museum that’s tough to grasp unless you already know a lot about Nuragic culture. The same structure also contains the Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee, or the Mediterranean Mask Museum, which explains a bit about the Mamuthones tradition. It’s at Piazza Europa 15 (+39 0784.569.018, www.museodellamaschere.it). Admission is €5.

About the Mamoiada wines

100 year old Cannonau vine in Mamoiada With vineyards located between 600 and 900 meters above sea level, Mamoiada can boast some of the oldest Cannonau vines still producing. Almost all the grapes are grown bush style, and the vines are cut back annually to train them in the “goblet” style. The vine in the photo to the left was planted in the early 20th century, and it still yields a few clusters of grapes each year. The prevalence of such old vines tends to give Mamoiada wines an unusual depth and complexity. The region had a cooperative winery that flourished from 1950 until failing in 1980.

Since then, a few producers have consolidated holdings of older vineyards and have begun vinting their own wines. Most growers follow organic and even biodynamic practices, and most are certified organic. These high-altitude Cannonaus need to stay on the vine a long time to fully ripen the tannins. As a result, many show an alcohol content up to 15.5 percent.

Cantine Giuseppe Sedilesu

Giuseppe Sedilesu winery in MamoiadaThree children of the founders operate this winery that was created in 1981 to fill the gap left by the coop’s failure. The entry-level Cannonau called “Sartiu” is a pleasant young red that shows the youth of the vines (3-15 years) in its comparative lightness. The flagship “Mamuthone” comes from older vines (15-50 years). Sedilesu ferments this wine in stainless steel and ages it briefly in large Slavonian oak barrels. Spicy notes of wood, anise, and eucalyptus grace an otherwise elegant, rich grapiness.

Sedilesu also makes two distinctive riservas. One is named for an ancient circle dance of Barbagia, “Ballu Tundu.” At the top of this post, winemaker Francesco Sedilesu is standing in the vineyard where the grapes grow. The vines range 60-100 years old. This wine ferments for four to six weeks in big conical vats with manual punch-down. (Fermentation is spontaneous, depending on wild yeasts.) The extraction from the skins is extreme, resulting in a very deep color and tannins that stand up to the 15.5 percent alcohol. All the aromas in the Mamuthone are present, along with leather and tobacco. On first taste, it is very spicy with a long finish.

Best of the best

Francesco Sedilesu sips his riservaThe other riserva is named for founder Giuseppe Sedilesu. Only grapes from the lowest yielding plants in the highest parts of the oldest vineyards are selected for this Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. The winery only makes it in the best vintages. This is the big brother to Ballu Tundu. It is fermented the same way, and also aged in big oak barrels and in bottle before release. Tart cherries, bramble fruit, and elderberries come to mind on the nose and first taste. As it opens up, this riserva blooms into a complex glass of fruit and herbs with notes of almond and hazelnuts. Although it is great with roasted meats, Francesco (above right) considers it a wine for musing.

The winery is located in the center of Mamoiada at Via V. Emanuele II, 64 (+39 0784.567.91, www.giuseppesedilesu.com).

11

01 2017

Design and wine shine at Hotel Su Gologone

folk art at Su Gologone
Hotel Su Gologone is a destination for design fans as well as wine-lovers. The whitewashed stucco walls and terracotta floor tiles serve as a blank canvas for an explosion of color. Potted geraniums and bright folk art dot every corner of the sprawling property. Bougainvillea crawls up the walls, its blossoms dangling overhead. Immense fig trees provide shade to outdoor patios and dining areas. The guest rooms, which range €121–€287 per night, are virtual galleries of local crafts—hand-loomed bed coverings, ancient pottery, brightly glazed ceramic folk art, furniture fashioned from local juniper wood, charmingly naïf paintings.

double room at Su GologoneSu Gologone began in 1967 as a small restaurant serving food next to the mountain spring by the same name. Since the location was remote, the family opened a small hotel that has grown over the decades into a designer destination. All the connected buildings cling to the topography of the hillside, creating multiple indoor and outdoor steps and staircases to access all the wings. The interiors overflow with folk art. (See the sitting area at the top of this post). Typical of the region, the hotel has no useful address. (You can send mail to Loc. Su Gologone, 08025 Oliena, Sardegna, Italia.) Reservations can be made by phone (+39 0784.287.512 or +39 0784.287.552) or at the multilingual web site (www.sugologone.it).

Showcase of different Cannonau styles

Su Gologone provides such an artistic atmosphere that many of the Cannonau producers like to use it to showcase their wines. The wine list in the restaurant is almost encyclopedic, and the producers frequently host potential distributors at the hotel. My little group organized by Renzo Peretto and Donatella Muscianese of Laore met with a handful of producers during our stay to sample some of their wines.

Sella & Mosca

Sella & Mosca (www.sellaemosca.it) began in 1899 as a vine nursery to help rebuild the Sardinian wine industry after the scourge of phylloxera. As such, the company takes a leadership role in rehabilitating some of the island’s indigenous grape varieties, most notably Vermentino among the whites and Cannonau among the reds. The main plantings in Alghero encompass 550 contiguous hectares (1359 acres), one of the largest vineyards in Europe.

The company makes three levels of Cannonau, including a very simple fruity style and a spicy “Dimonios” label made entirely for the domestic market. I recommend trying it in Italy. The low-yield grapes from old vines are fermented and aged in huge oak barrels and concrete. Its very spicy nose is followed by a velvet feel in the mouth and bright raspberry afternotes.

The wine widely available in the U.S. is Cannonau di Sardenga DOC Riserva. Retailing $16-$18 (in Massachusetts), this wine has everything you might ask of a food-friendly Cannonau. The brilliant ruby color and nose of violets and raspberries give way to a plummy mouth-feel flavor with hints of anise and rosemary. There’s just a touch of oak in the finish for an aristocratic balance.

Cantina Santa Maria la Palma

By contrast, Sella & Mosca’s neighbor in Alghero, Cantina Santa Maria la Palma (www.santamarialapalma.it), is a cooperative of about 300 members. In the 1960s, the farmers were all granted uncultivated land near the city to plant Vermentino and Cannonau. The winery’s principal production is Vermentino—it’s the largest in Sardinia—but it also makes two levels of Cannonau. The basic level, called “Le Bombarde”, is an easy-drinking young wine priced under $10 in the U.S. Its Cannonau di Sardenga DOC Riserva is less widely available but worth seeking out. For starters, it’s unusually low in alcohol for a Cannonau (13 percent), yet the tannins are fully ripe. It’s also a rarity among Cannonaus for using a substantial portion of American oak in the aging. This gives it a more pronounced vanilla note, but does present a smooth and elegant finish.

Viticolori della Romangia

This relatively new cooperative of 10 members formed in 1996. It is based in Sorso, in the far northwest corner of the island. Soils here are a hodge-podge of sand, clay, and limestone and the vineyards lie near the sea in the rain shadow of a high ridge. As a result, strong downdrafts and updrafts keep the vines well-ventilated. Although young, the cooperative’s “Radice” (a Cannonau di Sardegna DOC) seemed to really speak of its terroir. The fruit is very deep and clean—like an especially ripe Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The nose is closed, as you might expect from young vines, but the wine blossoms with food.

Cantine di Orgosolo

Representing 19 small growers in the Locoe and Sorasai valleys, Cantine di Orgosolo (www.cantinediorgosolo) makes a entry-level Cannonau called “Neale” (meaning “honest man”). The blend includes 15 percent Bovale, which is immediately apparent on the nose by the aroma of leather. The taste, however, is bright raspberry and cherry. The winery’s “Luna Vona” organic wine is fermented on the stems with wild yeast. It has some slightly green tannins that pair well with robust meats. The flagship wine of this young cooperative (formed in 2006) is the most interesting. Called “Urùlu” after the archaeological site near the vineyards, it presents with a bold, sweet nose of raspberries and roses. Grown on granitic soils at 400-600 meters above sea level, the blend includes tiny percentages of some of Sardinia’s other indigenous grapes. Urùlu is said to be a sacred spot for the ancient Sardinians, and the wine has a certain sacramental quality.

09

01 2017

High-altitude Cannonau wines exude lush fruit

Mountain vineyards near Oliena
Nearly three-quarters of Sardinia’s Cannonau vineyards grace the steep slopes of Nuoro province. These half-wild uplands are a world apart from the sybaritic beach towns along the coast. They’re also vastly different from Sardinia’s lowland vineyards famed for the white Vermentino

Oliena mountainsRemnants of the Nuragic culture from the Bronze Age persist in the hills, including two dialects of the ancient Sardinian language, which edges out Italian as a first language in some villages. The archaic Sardinians (1800bc-ad200) were adept architects, erecting more than 1,000 tall stone towers. Judging from the archaeological evidence, they also made wine.

Rome never conquered Sardinia beyond the coast. Cicero called the mountainous interior “Barbaria.” In Sardinian, it’s Barbagia. With vineyards as high as 700 meters, Barbagia is home to the most powerful and complex Cannonau wines. They are literally barbarian wines, though the term hardly does justice to their finesse. The winemakers of Cannonau di Sardegna DOC have put together a touring itinerary called La Strada del Vino Cannonau (www.stradadelvinocannonau.it). It covers most of the landmark churches, tiny museums, and points of sale for Cannonau. Marked by the sign at right showing a roadway and a goblet of red wine, it even includes a few wineries.

Cantina Oliena

Cantina di Oliena muralThis cooperative producer reflects one strain of Cannonau winemaking. Most growers are too small to make their own wine, so they band together as cooperatives. Cantina Oliena has about 100 members and produces about 350,000 bottles of top-flight wines. In addition to a sparkling Charmat-technique rosé, the cooperative makes three wines from Cannonau—all of them called “Nepente di Oliena.” Just to add to the confusion about Cannonau, the grape and the wines made from it near Oliena are called Nepente—a reference to the ancient Greek “medicine for sorrow,” also known as the “drink of forgetfulness.” Since the wines contain a minimum of 14 percent alcohol, careless drinkers will feel no pain (until the next day). The showroom is open Monday-Tuesday and Saturday mornings (Via Nuoro 112, Oliena, +39-0784-287-509, www.cantinasocialeoliena.it).

About the wines

Cantina di Oliena bottles The base Nepente di Oliena comes from vineyards at 200-300 meters. The grapes are hard-harvested in small buckets so they don’t crush each other. The cooperative makes this wine with 10-12 days of maceration on the skins, then ages it in concrete tanks before bottling. The resulting young wine is bright red tending toward purple. The nose contains pronounced notes of tart cherries and hints of roses and violets. The acidity is high and the tannins soft. It’s terrific with pizza and Pecorino di Sardo, the region’s characteristic sheep’s milk cheese.

The top of the cooperative’s Cannonau line is Irilai Nepente di Oliena Classico. It made from grapes grown at 300-400 meters given more than two weeks maceration. The wine ages in in large Slavonian oak barrels for at least a year, then another year in the bottle. Alcohol tops 15 percent, but the fruit concentration, the acidity, and the tannic structure keep the wine from tasting “hot.” The growers never have trouble producing fruit with a high concentration of sugar. But Cannonau’s polyphenols—i.e., the tannins—take a long time to ripen. This wine is strong and elegant with jammy cherry and blackberry fruits. As it opens on the palate with food, it gives off marvelous resinous scents of rosemary, eucalyptus, and wild thyme. It is spectacular with roast lamb.

04

01 2017

Cannonau takes its place in world of Grenache

Harvesting Cannonau in Sardinia
On February 10, Sardinia struts its stuff as it hosts the fifth annual Grenaches du Monde competition in the town of Alghero. It’s the first time that Cannonau di Sardegna (the Sardinian version of Grenache) has really taken center stage in the international competitions. The most widely planted wine grape in the world, Grenache is grown extensively in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, California, and Australia. In the 2016 competition, Spanish wineries dominated the gold medals, French and Sardinian winemakers the silver, and all three countries won bronze. No other nation even placed.

Glass of CannonauSomeday DNA research will unravel the tangled, contentious history of the grape. Grenache was long thought to hail from the southern Rhone, where it’s the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But preliminary DNA research has convinced scholars that northern Spain, where’s it’s known as Garnacha or Garnatxa, is the real birthplace. That’s the official version codified by Jancis Robinson’s The Wine Grapes.

Sardinians beg to differ. They’ve been vinting Cannonau for close to a thousand years (or 400, or 500, or 600, depending on which expert you ask). The DNA match for Grenache/Garnacha/Garnatxa/Cannonau is exact, although some Sardinian clones of Cannonau share DNA sequences with other ancient grapes that originated in Georgia and Armenia. That both the Spaniards and the Sardinians blend Garnacha/Cannonau with Cariñena/Bovale (another red grape that geneticists identify as Spanish) only adds to the confusion. The secondary grape provides both tannins and acidity for balance and better aging potential.

But when it comes to drinking the wines, it’s clear that each region produces a very different style. The monster Garnatxa reds of Spain’s Priorat and Montsant are only distant cousins of the well-mannered Grenache from the Courbières and Minervois regions just over the border in France. Châteauneuf-du-Pape represents still another style—brash and bold, but without Spain’s bombast. Sardinian Cannonau takes many guises, but it is typically characterized by intense dark berry flavors with nice overtones of anise, leather, tobacco, and violets.

Cannonau comes of age

Open vat fermentation of Cannonau After nearly a week traveling through Cannonau country in Sardinia this fall and tasting nearly 200 wines, I came away excited and impressed with Sardinia’s contribution to the world of Grenache. I had not tried Cannonau in more than a decade, and the flawed bargain wines I remembered have disappeared. Led by a strong and disciplined D.O.C. group determined to compete in the international market, the winemakers of Cannonau have brought their ancient grape into the 21st century. A wide range of individual styles still persists, but overall, Cannonau now arrives to the table dressed for success. Despite the finesse of the wines, Cannonau remains a relative bargain—assuming you can find it. In the next few posts, I’ll be treating some of the more striking examples and offering a few peeks at life on Sardinia in the uplands above the famous seaside resorts.

02

01 2017

Château La Nerthe delivers warmth, finesse, and power

Turkey lentil cassoulet with 2012 Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape might be the ultimate late autumn comfort wine. At its best, it’s rich, nuanced, and warm. It has a gentle power that responds to those hormones that surge when the days get shorter. It also plays very well with food.

Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape on tableThe 2012 Château La Nerthe is the very model of what Hugh Johnson once called “a glowing, roast-chestnut warmth” characteristic of good Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Admittedly, good wines from this southernmost portion of the Rhone cost enough to be out of our league for everyday drinking. But this bottle comes in at a reasonable $65 suggested retail price—closer to $55 at discount wine shops. Just entering its drinking years (now through 2023, we’re told), it blossoms when double-decanted and served at around 60° F. We opened the bottle two hours ahead of dinner and found it tannic and tart. Placed back in the bottle after decanting and rested on a cool windowsill, it was spectacular with a classic cool-weather cassoulet.

Great Châteauneuf-du-Pape in tough year

Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a difficult year in 2012. A severe winter froze a lot of buds and some entire vines. Grenache was afflicted with coulure (a tendency not to develop grapes after flowering). Plus the region had a very dry summer. The 225 acres of vineyards at Château La Nerthe weathered these vicissitudes better than most.

Château La Nerthe vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape Certified organic since 1998, the vineyards depend on a thick layer of glacial cobbles (galettes) that seal in moisture and radiate heat up to the vines at night (see photo at right, courtesy of Château La Nerthe). The vineyards were harvested on schedule in late August. The vintage ended up with a blend of 44% Grenache Noir, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre, and 5% Cinsault. That’s about a quarter less Grenache than usual for Château La Nerthe, but Grenache still dominates the finished wine. The nose is rich with blackberries, dark cherries, and aromatic spices. Hints of oak remain on the palate, and just a hint of leathery Syrah comes through.

It was the ideal wine for the dank weather that followed Thanksgiving in New England. Low turkey prices inspired the following cassoulet using Puy lentils, roasted garlic, and charcoal-roasted turkey thighs in place of duck confit.

POST-THANKSGIVING SMOKED TURKEY CASSOULET

cassoulet-for-recipeTurkey is ridiculously cheap in the weeks running up to Thanksgiving. We butcher the birds, saving the breasts to brine and roast separately. The backs and wings go into stock. We slow-roast the thighs and legs in a charcoal grill to produce the next best thing to duck confit without the fat. Rub the legs with 2 teaspoons ras al hanout and 1 teaspoon sea salt and refrigerate in a plastic bag overnight. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the bag and rub well to coat. Roast about 15 minutes per side in closed but vented Weber grill with fire built on the other side of the grill. This produces smoky, overcooked turkey. Let cool and strip the meat. It should yield 12-14 oz. of stringy, smoky pulled turkey.

8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces smoky thick sliced bacon, cut in 1-inch strips
12 ounces chicken garlic sausage
1 head of garlic
white wine to deglaze pan
meat from charcoal-roasted turkey legs

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme

1 bay leaf
2 cups French green lentils (lentilles du Puy)
8 cups chicken or turkey broth, preferably homemade
3 cups breadcrumbs made from day-old white bread (or panko, if necessary)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, or equal amount of olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Directions

Set oven at 350ºF. Place half the bacon strips, sausages, and whole head of garlic in heavy-bottomed roasting pan or 12-inch cast iron skillet. Roast 25-30 minutes, turning sausages at least once, until sausages are browned, bacon has rendered its fat, and garlic is roasted through. Remove sausages and bacon to a plate to cool. Place garlic on separate plate to cool. When garlic is cool, cut head in half horizontally and squeeze out roasted garlic for use later with vegetables.

Drain fat from roasting pan into a Dutch oven. Deglaze pan with wine and reserve liquid.

Add remaining bacon to Dutch oven and heat over medium-low until bacon begins to color but is not yet crisp. Remove bacon to plate with sausages and other bacon.

Turn up heat in Dutch oven and add turkey meat. Cook, stirring often, to crisp up edges. Remove from pan and reserve.

Add olive oil to Dutch oven and add onion, carrots, and celery. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to become translucent and vegetables are al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add cayenne, fresh herbs, and the mushy garlic squeezed from roasted head. Cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove from pot and reserve.

Turn oven up to 375ºF.

Deglaze Dutch oven with a little chicken stock. Then add lentils and bay leaf. Add remaining stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook about 15 minutes, until lentils are tender but not mushy. Remove bay leaf. Stir in vegetable mixture and turkey. Cut cooked sausages into 1/2 inch slices and stir in. Add reserved deglazing liquid.

Assemble and finish

At this point you can transfer everything into a 4 quart casserole, if desired, but the Dutch oven will work fine as well. Mix bread crumbs with melted butter and spread evenly over surface. Place lid on Dutch oven or casserole (or use aluminum foil) and bake in oven about 30 minutes. Remove lid or foil and continue cooking another 20 minutes until breadcrumb topping has turned dark gold.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Let rest about 15 minutes before serving with a green salad topped with pear slices and dressed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette.

15

12 2016

Belfast’s OX treats Irish food with hugs and kisses

canape of butternut squash, onion galette, ricotta, and fennel pollen at OX in Belfast
We weren’t surprised to eat foie gras and truffles at OX in Belfast, which won its first Michelin star last spring after opening in March 2013. (It’s one of two starred restaurants in Belfast.) Restaurateurs believe that foie gras and truffles must appear on a menu before Michelin will award even one star. No doubt there are exceptions, but we haven’t encountered them. What was a delightful surprise was that such highfalutin ingredients were the exception rather than the rule at OX (1 Oxford Street, 28 9031 4121, oxbelfast.com).

interior of OX in BelfastThe truly defining moments in the spectacular autumn tasting menu were those dishes where humble, local ingredients sang. OX aims to serve brilliantly conceived, highly seasonal food. The price is low for fine dining (£50 for the tasting menu) and the dishes are easily understood. There’s no need to brush up on the precepts of Structuralism before making a reservation. Just bring a hearty appetite, an appreciative eye, and an open-minded palate.

Picture perfect


Chef Stephen Toman’s food looks as good as it tastes. The canapés shown at the top of this post were feats of legerdemain. The cracker is an onion galette. Mounted on it are a few dabs of fresh ricotta cheese freckled with fennel pollen. The “pastry” draped over the cheese is perfectly cooked, thinly sliced butternut squash. The whole plate is sprinkled with marigold petals. It is about as sunny looking and tasting a plate as you could find in gray November in Belfast—and it was all accomplished with local ingredients.

550px-ox03-beet-venison-kohlrabi Flowers are one of Toman’s tools to make the dark foods of winter look brighter. After a great celeriac soup (more on that later), Toman lit up a dark dish with pansy blossoms. Called “beetroot, wild venison, fermented kohlrabi, black garlic,” it combined several elements we rarely use at home and often avoid when we go out. We shouldn’t have worried. The beet was rich and sweet, the venison was butter-tender and savory, and the kohlrabi was a truly inspired pickle. It was the ideal foil to the unctuousness of the other ingredients. A glass of pinot noir from Germany’s Baden region (on the border with Alsace) had the austerity and spiciness to bring out the best in the food.

Nuanced wine list


The synergy between the owners—Belfast native Toman and Brittany-born Alain Kerloc’h—gives OX an international sensibility that places it directly between classical French dining and the New Nordic cuisine emanating from Copenhagen. Kerloc’h manages the restaurant and often serves as maitre d’ but his background is as a sommelier. A handful of wines on the list are there for big spenders, but most are food friendly choices from all over Europe, often without regard for prestige appellations. We tasted six with the dinner, and each was a surprise.

Chateaubriand and truffle at OX in BelfastFoie gras appeared in a supporting role in the most classic dish of the night—a slice of Chateaubriand served with foie gras, artichoke, and hop shoot. The dish seemed to be Toman’s nod to his lineage as a classically trained chef who worked extensively in Paris, including at the legendary Taillevent. The accompanying wine—a 2013 Faugères—was fruit-forward and uncomplicated. The inclusion of a small percentage of Syrah gave the Grenache-dominated red a spicy finish. The wine made the steak and liver course actually seem light!

Like Toman, we often exalt vegetables over proteins when we’re cooking at home. We thought we could best replicate his celeriac soup—minus the swirl of black trumpet mushrooms and generous shavings of truffle. (The inspiration is pictured below.) The recipe that follows is our adaptation of a French standard with the addition of diced apple at the bottom—a trick we learned at OX. It’s more rustic than Toman’s version, but it’s a cinch to make at home. If you feel it needs some extra oomph (lacking truffle), try stirring in some crumbled pieces of bacon.

celeriac soup at OX in Belfast

CELERIAC SOUP AND DICED APPLE


Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
sea salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 pounds celery root, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch cubes
6 cups chicken or mild vegetable stock
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 large apple, peeled, cored, and cut in 1/4-inch dice
crumbled bacon (optional)
extra virgin olive oil to garnish

Directions
In large soup pot over medium heat, melt butter and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add sliced leeks and a pinch of salt. Stir and cook until leeks begin to soften. Add garlic and another pinch of salt. Cook slowly until leeks and garlic are soft but not brown. Add celery root, stock, and ground pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook about 45 minutes until celery is very soft. Using an immersion blender, purée until creamy and smooth, adding extra stock if necessary.

To serve, cover bottom of each bowl with diced apple. Pour in celeriac soup, and add optional bacon. Garnish with a few drops of extra virgin olive oil.

24

11 2016

Bravura Navarra wine hits all the high notes

albondigas de bacalao at Taberna de Haro
Spain’s D.O. Navarra wine district nestles just east of La Rioja like two lovers spooning in bed. With much the same soils, the same Río Ebro influence, and a millennium-long winemaking tradition, Navarra has everything to make great wines. It even has some of the oldest plots of the Garnacha grape in northern Spain.

Eleven Navarra producers came through Boston last night showcasing one wine each at the terrific Spanish restaurant Taberna de Haro (999 South Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-8272, tabernaboston.com). Chef Deborah Hansen’s crew passed tapas as we tasted. Among them were the stunning deconstructed version of her salt cod saffron meatballs, albóndigas de bacalao, shown above.

We tasted blends mostly dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. A few were jazzed up with Syrah, a newcomer to Navarra still accounting for less than 1 percent of vineyards. Without exception they were well-made wines suitable for drinking with roast meats, dishes full of ripe peppers or mushrooms, and other powerful flavors. Most were retailing at $20-$25.

Tempranillo standout


Beatriz Ochoa with Ochoa Reserva 2009 at Taberna de Haro To our taste, we were most impressed by the Bodegas Ochoa Reserva 2009. It was the only blend that placed the native Tempranillo grape at center stage. It picked up some blackberry notes from 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and a velvety smoothness aided by 15% Merlot. Of all the wines we tasted, it was the most Spanish and reflective of the terroir.

This family-owned winery, which dates from 1845, was a pioneer in switching Navarra from mass production of inexpensive wines to lower-yield, high quality wines. Javier Ochoa, who just retired with the 2016 vintage, began the switch a generation ago. One of his daughters, Adriana, is the company winemaker now. She and her sister Beatriz Ochoa, who is general manager, represent the sixth generation of the family. That’s Beatriz in the photo above. See their whole line at the web site.

This particular wine spent 18 months in French and American oak and five years in bottle. It is remarkably harmonious, warm and welcoming, and ultimately powerful—a splendid example of fine winemaking where a French supporting cast lets Tempranillo star. It retails around $22.

What food would Beatriz choose if she was opening a bottle of Ochoa Reserva?

“Lamb chops,” she said without hesitation. “From the grill!”

17

11 2016

Bargain reds from Lafite ward off the fall chill

Lafite bargain reds
It’s almost scary how we start craving heavier meals the moment that there’s a nip in the air. With November already hinting of the winter to come, we’re digging into the wine closet for reds instead of whites. Like many wine lovers, we find several massive reds that need more age before drinking and very few wines really ready to drink. Moreover, we’ve learned the hard way that cheap reds usually deliver exactly what you pay for—along with some additional next-morning misery.

Lafite Rothschild (www.lafite.com) has come to our rescue with some superb reds that don’t require a special occasion. Listed at under $20 each, the Légende 2014 Bordeaux, Los Vascos Grande Réserve Cabernet 2013 from Chile, and Amancaya Gran Reserva 2013 from Argentina actually cost closer to $15 at better wine warehouse stores. (Those are Massachusetts prices; your mileage may vary.) We alluded to the quality of Lafite’s secondary lines in a post in May 2015, but we thought we’d put this group of bargain reds to the test with some of our standby autumn meals big enough to cry out for red wine. Because all three wines are on the young side, we double decanted to smooth out any rough edges with aeration.

Légende 2014 Bordeaux


Légende with roast chickenOne of our go-to fall dinners is a simple roasted chicken breast with roasted creamer potatoes and garlicky roasted peppers. The flavors are strong and satisfying, and the dish demands a fruity red. Légende from 2014 has the great blackberry fruit and vanilla/cocoa nose to complement the garlic and sweet red peppers. Purists might pooh-pooh the idea of drinking Bordeaux with roast chicken, but if the bird is mature and of high quality, an unfussy claret is a perfect pairing. Sure, we’d all like to drink Chateau Lafite Rothschild on a regular basis, but sometimes simple country Bordeaux is just right. This example (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot) is nicely structured with generous, rounded fruit and a lip-smacking, spicy finish. The summer of 2014 was cold and wet, but a sunny September and October miraculously ripened the grapes.

For the accompanying dinner, brine a large chicken breast (2 pounds and up) for a day in the refrigerator, then roast it with potatoes at 425°F. Broil the red peppers and peel them, then sauté strips with the creamy pulp from a roasted head of garlic. When the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 145°F, layer the peppers over the breast and return to the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 155°F. Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes before slicing.

Los Vascos Grande Reserve Cabernet


Los Vascos with arroz con polloThis Calchagua Valley wine was estate grown and bottled, and the grapes were handpicked and sorted. It shows a classic Chilean expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, with dark, plummy fruit notes complemented by cherries and strawberries in the nose. The herbal notes in the mouth make it a nice complement to the saffron intensity of a good arroz con pollo. We published a Super Bowl version of arroz con pollo back in 2010. See this post for the recipe. The dish can be a little overwhelming, so we cut the Spanish paprika in half to let the fruit of this delicious Cabernet come through. This wine has the soft tannins and acidity to age well, but it also drank nicely against the spicy pork of the Spanish chorizo.

Amancaya Gran Reserva 2013


Amancaya with Patagonian shepherd's pieWe’ve been very pleased with wines from Bodegas Caro, which is a joint venture in Mendoza between Lafite and the Catena family of Argentina. This particular wine balances the power and intensity of Argentine Malbec with the refined fruit of Cabernet Sauvignon. The modest price belies the sophistication of the wine. At 65% of the blend, the Malbec dominates. It presents the classic high-altitude Uco Valley combination of cloves and white pepper on the nose and a finish of dry cocoa and cured tobacco. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes distinctive raspberry and cassis notes to the nose and a supple fleshiness that hangs nicely on the Malbec’s bony skeleton. Double decanting definitely helped this wine. It continued to grow in the glass as we drank it with dinner.

We went with a humble recipe adapted from the great Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann. It’s really just a fancy shepherd’s pie. But just as the French and Argentine winemaking traditions combine in Amancaya, so do the British and Spanish culinary traditions of Argentine’s coldest region. The piquant spices and dark olives completely remake the flavor profile of the pub standard. Mallmann’s recipe in Seven Fires is a little different. It’s also meant to feed four to six people. This version serves two—just right for splitting a bottle of Amancaya.

FRANCIS MALLMANN’S BEEF AND POTATO PIE


Serves 2

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 pound lean ground beef
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1/2 cup dry red wine
2-3 medium salad tomatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1/2 pound)
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
2 hard-boiled large eggs
1 teaspoon white sugar

Directions

In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, combine olive oil, onion, and carrot. Sauté over medium-high heat until vegetables soften and begin to brown (about 5 minutes). Crumble in the ground beef and cook until it begins to brown. Stir in the bay leaves, rosemary, oregano, cumin, Spanish paprika, pepper flakes, and mustard. Add red wine and let mixture bubble gently a few minutes.

Stir in tomatoes and olives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the meat is very tender and the liquid is reduced but not completely evaporated. (The finished dish must be moist.) Remove from heat and set aside.

While meat and vegetables are cooking, place potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Add salt to taste and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and boil gently until potatoes are very tender when pierced with a fork (12-15 minutes). Drain the potatoes thoroughly and press through a food mill or potato ricer.

Bring milk to a boil, and beat it into the potatoes. One by one, beat in the egg yolks, and continue beating until well blended, fluffy, and yellow.

Set oven at 375°F with rack in the bottom third.

Slice the hard boiled eggs into six slices each and arrange them over meat mixture in cast iron skillet. Spoon mashed potatoes on top and smooth the surface with a spatula. Use the tines of a fork to create a pattern of narrow decorative ridges. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until potatoes are nicely browned.

14

11 2016

Ontario wine country becomes a world player

Magdalena Kaiser pours tasting of VQA Ontario wines in Toronto.
Meeting Magdalena Kaiser of Wine Country Ontario during our recent visit to Toronto was a real treat. She hails from Ontario wine royalty. Her father, Karl Kaiser, was a co-founder in 1975 of Inniskillin Wines, Inc. The first winery licensed in Ontario since 1929, Inniskillin was a pioneer in making world-class wines on the Niagara Peninsula east of Toronto. The area quickly became known for exceptional ice wines but has broadened out to a huge variety of table wines as well.

We started visiting the Niagara Peninsula in the late 1980s. At the time, winemakers were shifting into European vinifera grapes from hardier French-American hybrids. They also launched Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), which oversees quality standards and certifies the origins of the wines in Ontario and British Columbia.

From that base on the Niagara Peninsula, wine-growing has expanded in several choice areas in Ontario. As Kaiser led us through a broad tasting of wines from three main wine regions over dinner at Richmond Station (richmondstation.ca), she seemed to know every pour as if it were one of her own.

Ontario terroir


bottles-1 We were struck by the sudden maturity of the youngest region, Prince Edward County. Located northeast of the other wine regions, it occupies a limestone peninsula on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Lake effect temperatures and stony soils give the wines a profound minerality. We tasted the Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered 2014 from Wellington. The wine displayed pronounced fruit and a supple elegance in the Burgundian style. The fresh acidity made it a perfect accompaniment to a charcuterie tray. This is cold-climate winemaking at its best. Hardie says his vines and barrels come from France, his terroir from Ontario, and the taste and nose from him. Have a look at www.normanhardie.com.

Many Prince Edward County wineries focus on sparkling wines. We sampled several, including Whitecap from Hinterland (www.hinterlandwine.com). Made with the Charmat method, it’s a crisp and inexpensive sparkler that could be Canada’s answer to Prosecco. Hinterland also makes some sparkling wines in the traditional method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Its best is Ancestral Method Rosé made with the Gamay grape.

The Gamay surprise


Ontario wines have matured to a level that many are ready to compete in the world market—especially if they play up the perfect match of the terroir to the Gamay noir grape. Gamay has been sullied in popular imagination by sour and fizzy Beaujolais Nouveau that typically appears on shelves in the U.S. just in time to spoil Thanksgiving. But real Beaujolais—the French wines sold as Beaujolais-Villages or Beaujolais Cru—is a wonderful wine with bright raspberry or wild cherry notes.

Some Ontario winemakers bleed their grapes for rosés or use early-picked Gamay for sparkling wine. But the best of the Ontario Gamay wines—like the Tawse Gamay Noir Unfiltered (www.tawsewinery.ca) and the range of Malivoire wines (www.malivoire.com) built on Gamay—resemble the Beaujolais Cru wines from Fleurie in France. These wines have depth, utterly delicious fruit, and a rounded acidity. They are great with cheeses and lighter meats such as chicken, turkey, or rabbit. Tawse, by the way, was named Winery of the Year in Canada in 2016.

Exploring the world of Ontario wines


vineyards in Ontario This tasting piqued our interest in Ontario wines, especially since so many wineries have figured out how to ripen Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc to produce wines that promise a future for superb reds. We expect to be heading up to Ontario wine country to explore in greater depth. If you’d like to do the same, start your planning with the Wine Country Ontario web site at winecountryontario.ca. The wineries have put together a comprehensive guide to visits that is one of the best marketing examples we’ve seen for a North American wine region. The vineyard photo above and the map below are courtesy of the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario.

Ontario wine regions

09

11 2016