Wines of the Week

Exciting new food and wine pairings

    How About Some Champagne – and Pasta?

   Every year, as the holidays approach, I’m always asked what kind of wines to pair with festive dinners.  Thanksgiving is a special puzzle, because the traditional dishes are all over the place in terms of flavors, textures, and sweetness.  The green bean casserole has cream and mushrooms, the cranberry sauce is tart, the sweet potatoes are…well, you know.  So my answer is generally Champagne or other sparkling wines because they seem to go with just about every type of food and flavor.

Recently, I received a suggestion about pairing Champagne with…pasta.  While I have a bit of a fevered imagination, this is a combination I never would have thought of.  When we eat pasta, we’re generally reaching for a big Italian red.  But the best thing about the world of wine is that it’s full of discoveries.  This is one.

Rachael Lowe, the Beverage Director of the famous Spaggia restaurant in Chicago, is apparently a big proponent of the pasta-and-Champagne combination.  She says, “When pairing Champagne and pasta, the texture and flavor profile of the dish’s sauce is your indicator. It’s the sauce that you’re matching not the pasta shape, so consider that first when looking for the perfect pair.”

This makes sense, though the shape of the pasta is important to Italian chefs because different shapes hold the sauce in different ways.  Anyway, she points out that different ingredients pair with various Champagne styles, which makes perfect sense.

Suggestion Number One:  Cacio e Pepe, which is like a minimalist mac and cheese.  The dish consists of spaghetti adorned with butter and black pepper, then sprinkled liberally with Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses.  This is best paired with a minerally, fresh sparkler (see our suggestions below).

A favorite around our house is a seafood-based pasta, like Tortellini with clams.  Since there’s shellfish on the plate, and several different textures, a lighter wine with citrus notes will go very well together.

Then we get to the really hearty dishes, like pasta carbonara.  This type of preparation has bold spice notes and herbs like rosemary and parsley, plus salty Pecorino cheese and either bacon or pancetta, so we use the “opposites attract” approach to pairing.  Heavy food, light wine. 

Below are some suggestions presented in the order of the dishes above.  Next time you’re making pasta, maybe you’ll leave the Chianti on the shelf just once and discover a new approach to complement your food with wine. 

Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs ($59) – While many Champagnes (and sparkling wines made by the Champagne method) are a blend of several grapes, a “blanc de blanc” is made from only Chardonnay.  This example has a fresh minerality and notes of honey that will set off the cheese and saltiness of the Cacio y Pepe pasta preparation.  WW 92

Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain ($45) – As mentioned above, seafood works best with wines that have pronounced acidity and citrus notes.  The flavors of this Champagne include lemon zest and a pronounced core of acid that pair perfectly with the “vongole” (clams). WW 91

Champagne Henriot Brut Vintage 2006 ($99) – Most Champagnes are non-vintage, unless the estate manager declares a “vintage year,” when the growing conditions and harvest are especially noteworthy.  For a treat, this sparkler has a bright acidity that balances and moderates the spices in the richly-flavored Carbonara sauce.  WW 94

Laurent-Perrier Brut NV ($45) – This is a very traditional style, blending all three heritage grapes:  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.  Since it’s almost half Chardonnay, the citrus and flower notes are very pronounced, and very pure.  This would go well with any type of seafood pasta.  WW 90

Is there life after Chianti?

The Other Italy

If you’ve ever eaten a pizza or ordered a plate of pasta in an Italian restaurant, chances are you know at least a little bit about Italian wine.  We’ve all encountered Chianti on the wine list, and probably Brunello and Barolo, too.

But even though Italian wines are wildly popular in the US, and even though we’ve all quaffed a carafe of Sangiovese at one time or another, there’s so much more to enjoy.  Let’s go a bit off the well-worn track, away from the Chianti region, away from Piedmont, and see where it takes us.

First stop – the Marches.  This area is just west of the port of Ancona, on Italy’s east coast about 230 miles south of Venice.  The most famous wine of the region is Verdicchio, a white wine with a lemony flavor profile and zippy acidity.  An extremely ancient varietal, it’s mentioned in Roman writing as far back as 400AD.  Aside from being a great pairing with seafood, you’ve probably seen the famous bottle, which is made in the shape of a fish.  Fun stuff.

Inzolia is a golden white wine grown in Sutera, on the south coast of Sicily. It has honey and melon aromas, and often contains flavors of bitter orange and grapefruit.  Many times, it’s left to oxidize, when it gains a deep golden color and nutlike qualities.  Interesting, and worth the search.

In Umbria, the wine to look for is Sagrantino di Montefalco.  The area borders Tuscany and the Marches, but the main varietal is the Sagrantino grape.  It’s deeply colored and quite tannic, so it’s often blended with Merlot, which makes it a bit softer.  Since it contains a high proportion of tannin, it ages well, and winemakers often leave it in oak barrels for over two years.  Flavors include black cherries, ripe blackberry, and some spice and earth.  Since it is so highly structured, it pairs especially well with steak, truffle dishes, venison, hard cheese, and even wild boar.

While you might not go out of your way to find wines from Sardinia, you probably should.  This island is the second largest in the Mediterranean, off the west coast of Italy, just south of Corsica.  Here, they make a killer Grenache, which they call Cannonau.  It’s a bit rustic, so it pairs well with strongly flavored red sauces and spicy pasta dishes, but the flavors of ripe plums, blackberries, and violets, accented by a slight bitterness on the finish, make it a great food wine.

There’s so much more to enjoy with Italian wines, so make a New Year’s resolution to explore some of the less familiar areas.  Meanwhile, here are some other Italian recommendations to start the year off right.

Citra Caroso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2010 ($22) – It’s easy to get confused between Montepulciano, which is the name of a grape, and Vino Nobile from the district of Montpulciano.  Hint:  look for the word “Abruzzo.”  The almost-black color in the glass promises a full-bodied experience, with flavors of raisins, licorice and complex fruit.  According to the tasting notes that accompanied this sample, the flavors are “elegante e potente,” because the whole thing was in Italian.  Enjoy this wine with food, and decant it first.  WW 92

Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti Chianti Rufina Riserva 2012 ($27) – This classic blend from the Rufina area of Tuscany follows the traditional recipe of Sangiovese, with a percentage of Colorino, Malvasia Nera, and Canaiolo.  A nose of warm earth, tobacco, and a burst of dark fruit is followed by a medium-bodied mouthfeel, and a mix of dark plum and cherry, and soft tannins.  This is a very typical “true to type” Chianti.  As a Riserva, it was aged for 24 months in oak and an additional three months in the bottle before release.  WW 88

Tenuta Valleselle Aureum Acinum Amarone della Valpolicella 2012 ($40) – This traditional blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes is on the sweet side, which we expect from an Amarone, with heady flavors of smoke, raisins, and dried black cherries.  Try it with more aromatic cheeses such as French Camembert, and other strongly-flavored foods.  WW 91-92


Varietals You Should Know -- And Love

Wines You Never Heard Of.

As we’ve noted before in this space, the world of wine is vast and extensive.  There are many countries where wine is made (including China, and much of the wine is better than you’d think) and over 200 varieties of grapes to make it from.  The wall chart in my office lists 184 varietals, and that’s probably not all of them.  In fact, I’ve been a wine geek for over 20 years, and people will still pull out a bottle of something I’ve never heard of.  That’s what makes this all so much fun.

Recently, I received a bottle of Bombino Bianco, which was a bit of a surprise, because we’ve sipped our way all over Italy, from Sicily to Milan, and had never encountered it.  This was a light refreshing white from the “heel” of Italy’s boot, and we’ll be looking for more of it.

Many wine grapes are obscure, or unknown for many reasons.  First is that some are used in wines that never leave their area of production.  In the far eastern reaches of France near the Alps, for instance, they make a wine called vin jaune, or “yellow wine.”  It’s produced from a grape called Savagnin, which grows only in that region.  While the wine is available from several online retailers, I have never seen it on a wine store shelf.  And there are many other varietals and regions just like that.

Teroldego makes a really interesting Italian red.  And Touriga Nacional is a major component of red table wines from Portugal.  The situation is complicated even further by the fact that in the Old World, the wines are known by their place names, and not the name of the grape.  So you’d never know that Sherry, which is a place name (in Spanish it’s Jerez) is made from a grape called Palomino.

Also, many varietals are grown specifically to be used in blends, and are rarely, if ever, bottled all by themselves.  Here, good examples would be Petit Verdot, a significant component of the Bordeaux blend, and Tannat, which comes primarily from Southwestern France, but is also grown very successfully in Uruguay (of all places).  They can be delicious on their own, but finding them is a bit of a chore.

But when you come right down to it, this is all part of the real enjoyment of discovering wine.  There are always new regions, new varietals, and new sensations.  So sample widely, and enjoy some of this week’s recommendations.

Contrade Malvasia/Chardonnay Puglia 2016 ($10) – This wine is 90% Malvasia, with a bit of Chardonnay blended in for body.  It’s a light straw color with white flowers on the nose.  It’s slightly sweet, and refreshing, offering flavors of white flowers, and white peach.  Our tasting panel says it’s a perfect “boat wine.”  WW 86

Damilano Barolo Lecinquevigne 2010 ($30) – I’m convinced that the Nebbiolo winemakers up in northern Italy are pushing a lighter style, because most Barolos in the past have been huge, extracted wines.  This is a much lighter version, with earth aromas, light tannins, and well balanced dark fruit flavors.  WW 89-90

Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap 2014 ($78) – Gorgeous.  Deep inky black color with nose of black currant.  Rich mouthfeel and abundant complex flavors of dark currant, blackberry, cassis, and chocolate.  Decant it, or give it some time.  Your wait will be rewarded.  Sensational.  WW 95

Salentin Malbec Primum 2013 ($65) – We all liked this one.  Dark ruby color, cherry, smoke, brown leather, all kinds of flavors going on in the glass.  A bit tannic, so it will need some time.  WW 91

This Week's Wine Discoveries


Salentin Malbec Reserve Valle de Uco 2014 ($19) - Smooth and quite approachable for a full-bodied wine. Bright fruit, minerality with notes of plum and dark cherry. WW 88

Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2016 ($13) - This wine will go with just about any food you like. Pronounced leather and cedar on the nose, with a firm spine of strawberry and watermelon flavor. Since it's 100% Cabernet, it tastes just like the big red version, only much lighter - and pinker. WW 88 kbharvani@colangelopr.com

Contrade Negroamaro Puglia 2015 ($10) - The Negroamaro grape is characteristic in Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot. Deep ruby color offering a nose of dark flowers and honey. Interesting flavors of warm cherry, blueberry, and cocoa. Just a bit on the sweet side. WW 89

Second Labels -- And Who Makes Them

Second Labels – The Best-Kept Secret

We all want to enjoy great wine, but not all of us want to fork over a mortgage payment for a big Bordeaux or Super Tuscan.  Fortunately, there are less expensive alternatives.

I suppose there are people who drink major bottles as an everyday matter.  A thousand dollars to them is like ten dollars to the rest of us.  Just a matter of scale and proportion.  But those people don’t live at our house.

We divide our meager collection into maybe three parts…

·        Everyday drinking wines, like the corks we pop when we get home from work after a bad day…or any kind of day.  These are generally under $25-$20 a bottle.

·        Somewhat special wines that we’ll enjoy if some part of our lives has gone exceptionally well that day or week.  Something like we signed a new client.

·        The collectibles…wines we’ve purchased over the years that have increased insanely in value.  These we open only to celebrate anniversaries, births, or in the company of people who open similar bottles for us.

But it’s still possible to find and enjoy high quality wines made by globally famous wineries.  They’re called second and even third labels.

World class wineries such as ChateauMargaux or Screaming Eagle carefully sort their grapes by hand during harvest.  Since grapes don’t ripen evenly in bunches, this is a painstaking and laborious process.  The first quality grapes are selected for the major label. 

The remaining grapes are sorted again, and the best ones are retained and vinified for the second label, which is sold at a fraction of the price.  For example, a bottle of 2005 Chateau Margaux, a Grand Cru Bordeaux, costs around $700.  Their second label, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, is going for about $170.  Not cheap, but not completely outrageous.

Here’s a bit of help for when you’re ready to buy something really nice, but not insanely priced, for that birthday, anniversary, or holiday.

The most highly-prized and expensive Bordeaux wines have second labels, such as the above-mentioned Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de LaTour, and La Mission Haut Brion.  Other well-known Bordeaux producers offer second labels such as Echo de Lynch-Bages.  There are many others, as well.

In America, things are a bit different.  Wineries generally make several wines in many price categories.  There is Caymus, which is a reasonably priced California Cabernet at about $65.  Then there’s Caymus “Special Selection,” which will set you back over $250.

The Italians are especially good at this, so watch for these comparative bargains, and sample a few on those occasions that call for something a bit more special.

Until then, here’s just the kind of second label to look for:

Le Volte dell’Ornellaia Red Blend Tuscany 2015 ($30) – The top wine from Ornellaia sells for around $250 a bottle, so this is one of their value labels…and it is a value.  Dark ruby color in the glass with interesting aromas of milk chocolate and faint pine.  Dark red plum on the palate, along with wet stones and bright mixed fruit.  Very drinkable young, and great wine for the price.  WW 90

Also from Ornellaia, there’s Le Serre Nuove ($75)…a bit higher priced, but this wine has outscored even the top Bordeaux in competitive tastings for many years.  Medium ruby color with lots of red berries and fine, silky tannins.  WW 95

Lucente 2014 ($18)…is a great value.  This “super Tuscan” is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and the new oak aging gives it black cherry, vanilla, and coffee aromas and flavors.  WW 90

Ask the Wine Whisperer
A restaurant we went to had "Draft Wine" on the list.  I had never heard of it so I ordered a cab/syrah/merlot blend called Triple Threat.  The waiter didn’t know what draft was or the winery this came from.  It was surprisingly pleasant.  Have you heard of draft wines before?  Marna L., Seattle

Some very prestigious wineries are now putting their wine in kegs for use in restaurant by-the-glass service.  This preserves the wine much better than leaving opened half-bottles standing around, and does not affect quality.  I wouldn’t be hesitant to order a draft wine anywhere it’s offered.


Great Wines from Unusual Places

In the Mood for Moldova

One of the most fascinating things about the world of wine is that it…well, covers the world.  Example:  I guess we can be excused if we can’t instantly find the country of Moldova on a map (it’s sandwiched between Romania to the east and Ukraine, just off the Black Sea), but we recently received some sample wines from there, and guess what.  They‘re worth a sip.  And a second.

To have a viable wine industry, a country needs a stable central government, an institution which had been sadly lacking in that area until fairly recently.  But now winemakers are free to take advantage of their soils and climate and bring some interesting and previously unknown varietals to the market.  Moldova has over 275,000 acres of land under vine, so they’re not exactly new at this, and they’re cultivating both familiar international grapes and some that are very indigenous.

We sampled the Asconi Feteasca 2014 and were pleasantly rewarded.  This grape grows as both a white and a red, but our enjoyment came from the white.  It’s a light straw color with aromas of fruits and flowers, mainly white peach.  The palate is sour apple, jasmine and a nice zingy acidity.  We liked it.  WW 89.

The “Other” Bordeaux
On the east side of the Gironde River, or the Right Bank, there are several well known appellations, including St. Emilion and Pomerol.  But some growers from lesser-known areas deserve recognition, and they know it.  So they’ve banded together to create an overall “brand” for wines that come from areas such as Castillon (southeast of St. Emilion) and the areas of Bourg and Blaye, directly across the river from Margaux.  Sure, we all think of the famous grand cru wines like Lafite, Petrus, and others, but there are bargains – and great taste experiences – to be found in many, many other areas.  Here are some of our recent discoveries.

Château Moulin de Clotte Castillon 2010 --  This blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc gives off a nose of earth and minerals, followed by flavors dark earth and black fruit.  A bit tannic, so needs time or a good decanting.  WW 89-90

Château Roland La Garde Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2010 – Earth and smoke on the nose with flavors that are very true to type.  Unmistakably a Bordeaux.  Made in a lighter style, it’s ready to drink today. WW 90

Château de Francs “Les Cerisiers” Côtes de Bordeaux 2009—In French, cerisiers means “cherry blossoms.”  The wine is well named.  Inky black in the glass, it certainly offers aromas of dark cherry. On the palate, the black cherry pays off with just a hint of oak.  Another blend of mostly Merlot, it’s still tannic and needs time or food.  WW 90-91

Unfindable Wines
We’re painfully aware that some of the wines we review may not be available locally, but they’re all worth the search.  Even though I like to support my local wine merchants, and I always look around here first, you might consider visiting www.wine-searcher.com.  This website gives you a list of retailers that have your wine in stock.  Click on their link, order online, and they’ll deliver it right to your home or office.  Hint:  if you order now, ask them to hold your purchase for delivery in October or November, when the weather cools off.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
“We’re seeing a lot of arguments in print about wine bottles sealed with corks vs. screw tops.  Which is better?”  Jim M., North Fort Myers

This is an argument that probably will never subside.  Cork is, after all, an organic product – the bark of a certain type of oak tree.  It breaks down over time, and worst of all, is subject to a fungus called TCA that robs the wine of its freshness or spoils it completely.  Screw caps (the makers would prefer that we call them “twist-offs”), seal a bottle completely, and most likely can last forever.

Volumes have been written on this topic, but I’d say that wines you’re planning on drinking over the next few years are perfectly fine with a “twist off.”  The more expensive wines will likely still be sealed with corks, at least for the immediate future.



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