El Dorado County Wine Takes Top Honors at New York Tasting
WHAT would happen if Thanksgiving were canceled? The wine panel inadvertently tested this proposition when Hurricane Sandy collided with our annual holiday wine tasting.
Every year, our home team — Florence Fabricant and I, along with Julia Moskin, Pete Wells and our tasting coordinator, Bernie Kirsch — gathers for a preliminary Thanksgiving meal. We drink a series of wines with a typical feast, assess their compatibility and make some recommendations.
That was the plan this year, too. But the storm made it impossible for us to gather on our appointed day, or the next day or the day after that. By the time the way had cleared, the panel had scattered and our preliminary feast proved impossible.
So what did we do? Exactly what any family does when forces beyond its control interfere with its plans. We improvised. That is, I took home all the wines, which had been awaiting our meal, and sampled them myself.
I didn’t taste them blind, and the opinions are solely my own. I missed not having the group, but on the bright side, the usual taunts, tart observations, philosophical disputes, downright insults and other familial byplay were kept to a minimum.
The goal was simple: select two wines, one red and one white, rosé or sparkling. The cost? No more than $25 a bottle.
Now, if your Thanksgiving consists of four people eating a jewel of a meal, you should drink whatever you want and can afford. If you were to decide on the finest Champagnes, Burgundies and the like, well, I would ask only that you save me a glass.
My Thanksgivings are not like that. Typically, they are big, ramshackle affairs with guests streaming in and out and an unpredictable riot of dishes on the buffet table.
Such joyous chaos makes precise pairings of wine and food difficult, if not impossible. So the wine panel’s strategy has always been to seek out versatile, moderately priced wines that, above all, will refresh and invigorate regardless of the individual components of the endurance contest ... I mean, the meal.
One red, one white and plenty of both is our mantra. This year we also permitted rosés and sparkling wines because, well, why not? Most rosés are made for summer drinking, but those with firmer character can be ideal for the Thanksgiving panoply. And sparkling wines? Good ones qualify on all counts: refreshing, flexible and invigorating.
As for plenty, err on the side of extra. One bottle per drinking guest is sensible. Would you ever dream of running out of food on Thanksgiving? Of course not! Don’t do it with the wine. In the worst case, you’ll have leftovers, which, as everybody knows, are the best part of Thanksgiving anyway.
The panel this year came up with brilliant selections. Some were obscure: Pete and Julia both chose unusual sparkling wines that nonetheless were superb. If you’ve never considered sparkling wines, it’s understandable. Most people think of them as solely for receptions and parties. Yet, they are among the easiest wines to pair with disparate dishes. The only possible drawback might be the effervescence, which can fill precious space in the stomach.
Pete was concerned about bubbles, “but this wine charmed me into not worrying about that,” he said of his selection, a Cerdon du Bugey from Renardat-Fâche in the Savoie region of eastern France. Charming is right. This lightly sparkling rosé is also a little sweet, but so perfectly balanced that it’s never cloying. And at just 7.5 percent alcohol, you can drink a lot. The biggest problem is its obscurity. But other mildly sweet wines operate on similar principles of balance. You could try kabinett rieslings from Germany, or demi-sec Vouvrays.
Pete’s other selection turned out to be a perennial favorite of mine, the 2010 Bone-Jolly from Edmunds St. John, a rare American gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, from El Dorado County in California gold country. It’s light-bodied but intensely flavored, agile and earthy, with each sip thirst-quenching yet intriguing enough to inspire another. It’s an American take on Beaujolais, not a facsimile, perfect for an American holiday. If it’s unavailable, any number of good Beaujolais will do, particularly moderately priced selections from producers like Jean-Paul Brun, Pierre-Marie Chermette and Michel Tête.
Julia’s sparkler, the Bulles de Roche from the Saumur region of the Loire, was made largely of chenin blanc with a little chardonnay and cabernet franc tossed in. It was intensely dry, tart and almost herbal, yet again, beautifully balanced with savory mineral flavors. It’s most definitely a wine that you can drink well into the night.
But it, too, is obscure, imported solely by Sherry-Lehmann, a big New York wine merchant. Luckily, many other dry sparklers from Vouvray, Alsace and other parts of France would do well in its place.
Julia’s second wine, a 2010 Vitiano, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese from Umbria, should prove far easier to find. It’s made in quantity by the Cotarella brothers, well-known Italian wine consultants, and its juicy, slightly bitter flavors were deliciously refreshing. Best of all, it was a mere $10, making it our best value.
Florence’s red, a 2011 cabernet franc from Paumanok on Long Island, was likewise fresh and zesty, with an exuberance that was pure pleasure.
Florence believes strongly in selecting only American wines for the holiday. This year she picked two New York wines. Her second was a white, a 2008 Rkatsiteli, a rare grape that originated in the country of Georgia, made by Dr. Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes. The grape reminds me of a cross between sauvignon blanc and riesling, and the ’08 was already showing a bit of age. The flavors were subtle and a trifle subdued; I was concerned that it might not stand up to the more assertive dishes on the table.
But it was just 11 percent alcohol, which was nice, and Florence, never one to lose a teachable moment, said it offered an opportunity to discuss pronunciation (are-cat-see-TELL-ee) and geography with the children at the table.
My wines were pretty good as well. The red was a 2011 Viña do Burato from D. Ventura in Ribeira Sacra, a region in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Structurally, it was like the other three: fresh, lively and exhilarating, with a slightly exotic fruit flavor that is the signature of the mencía grape. Other variations on this theme would include barberas from the Piedmont region of northern Italy and the more easygoing Chinons, like Les Granges from Bernard Baudry.
For a white, I chose a 2011 Sancerre from Yves Martin. I couldn’t have picked a more obvious wine. Sauvignon blanc, the grape of Sancerre, is generally bracing and animated, just right for the Thanksgiving meal. Other sauvignon blanc wines from the Loire Valley will do, or you can venture to many other places around the world, like New Zealand, South America, California and even Bordeaux. The key is that the wines are dry and relatively low in alcohol, closer to 12.5 percent than 14.5.
Against this strong competition, Bernie’s wines did not fare so well. I applauded his selection of a Virginia red, but the wine, a 2010 Topiary from Boxwood, wore a sheen of oak, which made it a bit fatiguing. I also loved that his white, from Millbrook in the Hudson Valley, was made of tocai Friulano, a grape mostly associated with northeastern Italy. But this wine, a 2011, lacked energy and intensity, and might be overwhelmed by the onslaught of holiday flavors.
It’s important to remember that these particular bottles are not meant to be ironclad recommendations. They are instead representative of the types of wines that go so well with Thanksgiving meals. Choose boldly, drink well and, above all, have a backup plan.
Edmunds St. John, $21, *** ½
El Dorado County Bone Jolly Gamay Noir 2010
Earthy, spicy, dry, lip-smacking and delicious.
D. Ventura Ribeira Sacra, $15, *** ½
Viña do Burato 2011
Floral, earthy and slightly bitter, with juicy, exotic flavors of red fruit. Sharpens the appetite. (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Paumanok North Fork of Long Island, $24, ***
Cabernet Franc 2011
Exuberant, bright, fresh and thirst-quenching. Cries out, drink me!
Thierry Germain & Michel Chevré, $17, ***
Saumur Brut Bulles de Roche NV
Tart aromas of citrus and herbs, yet rounded and well balanced with lingering savory flavors. (Sherry-Lehmann Selections/La Reine Importing, New York)
Renardat-Fâche Cerdon du Bugey NV, $23, ***
Lightly sparkling rosé, modestly sweet, floral, beautifully balanced and refreshing. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
Vitiano Umbria I.G.T. Rosso 2010, $10, ***
Juicy, easy-drinking and thirst-quenching, with slightly bitter but mouth-watering flavors. (A Leonardo LoCasio Selection/Winebow, New York)
Yves Martin Sancerre Chavignol 2011, $22, ***
Pungent, piercing fruit flavors when cold; mineral flavors emerge as the wine warms. Not concentrated but delicious and refreshing. (David Bowler Wines, New York)
Dr. Konstantin Frank, $20, ** ½
Finger Lakes Rkatsiteli 2008
Rich, round aroma indicates bottle age; subtle and a trifle subdued, may not stand up to assertive dishes.
Boxwood Virginia Topiary 2010, $25, ** ½
Classic herbal touches from cabernet franc, but a little overly polished.
Millbrook Hudson River Region, $19, * ½
Tocai Friulano Proprietor’s Reserve 2011
Light citrus and floral flavors, but lacks verve.