“impossible” pairing – nein?!

Is there such a thing as an “impossible” food/wine pairing? Some say Yes, others No. I’m of the mind that nothing’s impossible!

Sure there are a few tricky foods in the wine-o-sphere: asparagus, artichokes and eggs, come to mind immediately.

But trial and error proves time and again that for eggs there is always sparkling wine (and the higher the acid, and finer the bubbles the better, me thinks). For asparagus you can try Albarino, the Spanish white varietal that is low in alcohol, high in acid and lanolin-like in texture and is as food-loving as they come. In fact, this is my usual go-to for trickier pairings like super spicy fare or a redmeat-centric dish that would really do better with a red wine or even a rose, but where a white is required.

In my mind, artichokes are actually the biggest wine challenge – and in truth, this is probably a pre-conceived notion that I have because as much as I absolutely love them, they are such a pain to work with that I rarely prepare them myself.  Leave it to my good friend, a wonderful cook, to invite me over for dinner and make them! Fortunately she gave me the heads up so I could ponder the pairing for a little bit. She also told me that the main protein would be monkfish – so my playing field was happily narrowed: a white wine would be the best route to take.

As alluded  above, bubbly is certainly a safe bet when it comes to tricky pairings. But I wasn’t in the mood for full-throttle bubbles or too much toasty richness; and Prosecco doesn’t strike me as a sparkling with enough pungency or pizazz to fight back in the Table-side Food Challenge Throwdown that was presented. Something with tang seemed more like it.  Something that had enough ‘muscle’ to stand up to the ‘choke was needed.

Tocai came to mind, but didn’t win me over. So did New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Torrontes – but I wondered if their pungency would actually be too much.  And I really do think a little bubble and low alcohol goes a long way, so I perused my esoteric bubbly wine options instead. A lightly Sparkling Gruner called PUNKT was tempting, but I wasn’t sure the fruit and tang would come through enough to stand its ground. Then my eye caught sight of this bizarre and awesome wine called La Tosa.

La Tosa has historically been the ultimate zesty, fresh white wine with  just a hint of sparkle. But last vintage the twin brothers who make it decided to go full-on in the bubble department – and the new version of its former self is killer. Still a blend of Malvasia, Trebbiano, and Ortrugo grapes, lemon-lime flavors absolutely pop on the palate and an awesome fresh herbal note adds intrigue. Lively acidity brings it all on home. I thought, what  the heck?, and grabbed a bottle to chill.

Once around the table with my pasta bowl in front of me, I dove right in to the supposed wine-killer: the artichokes. Then I saddled up to my wine glass, breathed in the fresh bouquet and took a big sip. It was delicious! Each element stood its ground in ideal harmony – the artichokes danced while the wine sang. VICTORY.

What wasn’t so hot was the La Tosa with dessert: Gummi Bears. It was down right foul. I took a mental note to save that challenge for another day!

What would you pair with Gummi Bears?

Bubbles!

I drink sparkling wine all year long. Happily. Oh, so, happily! This year in particular has been a fun one in the sparkler-sphere, too. We’ve found many wines that are unique AND affordable, so my inclination to bring them home has been even greater. Long story short, while I’d never turn down an opportunity to enjoy a few gorgeous Champagnes (that is, from the Mothership of Champagne, France itself) if you travel outside this elite sparkling region you can find some real values.

Now, when it comes to the traditional time of year to pop a few corks (namely New Year’s Eve), I’m super psyched to have several of these options to choose from before heading to my friends’ to toast 2012. Here are a few that have caught my fancy so much so that they’ve inspired full-fledged wine notes. Ready? Set… GO!

Finca Flichman Extra Brut ~ Malbec is the sure-fire winning grape of 2011. But we wine nerds can’t forecast a reason to make a change in 2012! This trend has every right to carry on with gusto, particularly when we can also find it in an everyday celebratory (and affordable) package! Finca Flichman serves up a pretty bubbly, with terrific florals, snappy cherry and even a dash of blueberry and black raspberry fruits on the palate. This dry, redish sparkler (a blend of Chardonnay and Malbec) certainly intrigues and delights every sip of the way. And yes, for $9.99 it over delivers on quality!

Dom. Collin Cremant de Limoux ~ This is a sparkling wine (aka Cremant) with pedigree and pizazz from the Loire Valley of France. The pedigree part is that they man behind the magic has a Champagne project, but he thought it would be fun to dabble in the Loire as well. A blend of mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (two of the three grapes permitted in Champagne) with a little Loire-tastic Chenin Blanc thrown in for good measure, the winemaking behind the wine ensures a toasty, brioche-like flavor and texture to the wine. Tiny bubbles deliver clean fruit notes (apple, lemon pith and pear) a touch of bitter almond, plus a whopping of cleansing mineral notes bringing the dry finish all the way home. Take this bad boy home for only $13.99. A party-pleaser for sure!

Selim Spumante Brut NV ~  This is perhaps the rarest sparkler I’ve ever encountered. Hailing from Campania, Italy it is no Prosecco – rather it is a blend of three grapes, one white (Fiano) and two reds (Aglianico and Barbera). Such a blend delivers a white sparkler with an intriguing and delicious flavor profile and texture: its smooth mousse offers up pink roses and lemon curd aromas and then delivers lifted, delightfully nuanced flavors including citrus, raspberries and bing cherries. A touch of talc provides a welcome and balancing minerality. Selim is a complex yet approachably delicious crowd pleaser for any occasion. Grab a bottle and discover what I’m so excited about! $20.99

Oriel “365″ Prosecco NV – If you want something that offers a little something more in the traditional Italian sparkler-sphere, Oriel has just the thing. Their idea is to bring you an affordable Prosecco vehicle that is affordable enough you can enjoy bubbles ALL YEAR LONG, as Prosecco should be. (And yes, to answer your question, Prosecco is an Italian sparkler made from grapes of the same name.)  This not-so-simple, but oh-so-satisfying, lightly moussed wine with ample pear, lemon cream and yellow apple fruit takes a familiar experience up a notch. $17.99

Domaine Rolet Cremant du Jura Brut 2007 ~  For a non-Champagne sparkler, even with such great competition found this year in the marketplace, this wine might be the go-to Show Stopper for a pseudo Champagne. An offering from the off-the-beaten-track of Jura, France, this wine is a blend of Chardonnay, the indigenous Savagnin, and Pinot Noir. It has a luscious, rich texture yet fine bubbles and clean fruit. Specifically, quince and honeydew melon flavors offer a nice balance of tart/clean and savory/fleshy. A tangerine zip of acidity delights to no end. This bugger comes in just under $20 at $19.99. Happiness!

If you aren’t on the bubbly bandwagon just yet, this weekend to jump on. Grab something fun and live it up! But please, have a safe, happy and healthy New Year!

Tasting and traveling – and the two in tandem

Wondered where I’ve been? March was largely spent downtown or throughout Cambridge at various venues set up for trade folks to taste hundreds of wines, both those entirely new to market and also and equally important, newly released vintages of old friends. It was a more rigorous spring tasting season on “the circuit” (as we wine professionals call it) than last year, I hate to admit it.

Meanwhile, I was preparing for my trip (now in motion…) to Spain, where I have been visiting what I call Cava Country, more formally known as Penedes, and also the Priorat.

My travels began a couple of days ago with Marc Picon at Pares Balta, which  proved more than I could have imagined, even knowing in advance that this is a fourth-generation run estate that has embraced organic viticulture since The Beginning, well before it was of interest or marketable to do so. They also operate in what is now a national Park.

When I arrived, Marc, my congenial on-sight host and the estate’s Export Manager, explained that Pares Balta’s main priority isn’t showcasing the “music” behind their work in the winery when they are introducing people to Pares Balta (and yes, they make many, many different wines); rather they are focused on the land. I smiled and nodded a bit when he said this, because if you’ve taken a trip to any winery worldwide, I’m sure you, too, have heard the owner, winemaker or staff talk about the importance of terroir. Not to undermine their work or the sincerity of these statements, but I have to say, Pares Balta really does relish the earth and the natural course of things in an extreme way (and the result is extremely tasty!).

To explain better, Marc and I jumped in his SUV and began our “15 minute” journey up into the mountains where the Pares Balta vineyards are located, as I mentioned, now in a National Park. Yes, it is that serious. And yes, the ride was even more colorful than one of those Super Bowl SUV ads where you see trucks bouncing along easily over fallen logs, up cliffs and over boulders. If I could have taken a picture of it, I would have – but we were literally bouncing too much for me to capture the moment and video would have made any viewer nauseous.

Our first “stop” up the vigorous terrain was to the Pares Balta beehives. A costly undertaking, no doubt, PB has a beekeeper on staff to further support cross-pollination of the vines of course, but not just so they flourish; rather, so that the entire community flourishes, imparting natural, enhanced flavors in the wine. For example, the rosemary bushes growing alongside the trail flower. This flavor profile is gently communicated to the vines as the bees carry out their natural work. Brilliant. Nature helping nature help us.

Marc employed a terrific approach to best share both the Pares Balta way and what makes Penendes unique. We didn’t just bound up the mountain and look out the window. Instead, we stopped at various, specific vineyard sites to taste certain wines alongside the river in one case, and at the top of the mountain, in another. At each stop you could literally feel the change in climate, the quality of “freshness” in the air, the amount of (or lack of) wind, etc.. What makes Penendes so special was poignant and palpable: the varied terrain (a vivid mix of plots of clay literally across the path from plots of chalk) and microclimates.

What was perhaps most compelling to me was the hands off/hands on approach PB employs. They fully embrace what nature delivers on its own, and yet they don’t hesitate to employ (or encourage nature along?) either. Case in point, they use pheromones at the edge of the vineyards site as a natural ‘turn off’ to butterflies (the wind carries the “off-putting” scent down the rows), encouraging them to go ‘play’ in someone else’s vineyards. It’s one way to avoid pesticides and let the fruit mature unhindered by pests.

Tasting through many of Pares Balta’s wines was its own experience. Their range is from traditional Cavas, to rare single varietal bottlings that capture both the essence of the grape and also, critically and as expected, of the vineyard site’s terroir and aspect. As a case in point, Marc enthusiastically offered me a tasting of one of their rarest wines, a dry Gewurtztraminer. It was possibly the most varietally expressive Gewurtz I have ever experienced. (Yes! This grape is incredibly rare to Spain and more often found in Europe’s Germany and Alsace; the spice in the wine literally poked at my taste buds! But no, their production is ever-so-small, and therefore will never reach our New England shores.)

In addition, Marc enthusiastically designed a taste-off between two pairs of wines. The first was of two Garnacha’s from two different vineyard sites. Their flavors were of like family, but certainly of distinct breeding: 2008 Hisenda Miret, a more rugged, gamey beast that tamed willingy as it opened; and the 2008 Indigena, a fruit forward, approachable Garnacha with the flare of a rosey-cheeked flamenco dancer.

The second taste-off was between two Tempranillos hailing from two different clones, one wine was made from the local Penendes grape Ull de Lebre, and the other from a Pares Balta project in a much farther region, Ribera del Duero. The Absis is a Tempranillo-based wine that delivered a surprising helping of stewed plumbs, golden raisin, orange rind, blackberry and brighter raspberry fruits, with intense herbs and purple flowers, while the Ribera wine showed more masculine muscle, wet soil, fine dried herbs and baker’s chocolate flavors.

Long story short, I could have stayed all day! But appointments in the equally world-reknowned Priorat region beckoned….