Category Archives: wine

A Late Summer Dinner Menu

On the calendar, summer has more than a month to go before autumn equinox, but in reality, Colorado is in the threshold if fall. After record and near-record heat during much of the summer, the weather these last few days has been ideal: sunny and temperate days, cool nights, and bursts of rain every few afternoons or evenings to keep plants happy. All that signals the impending change of seasons — and the end of eating dinner on the back deck. Yesterday evening, to take advantage of some of my favorite summer foods, I made the following dinner for five (no real recipes here, because I didn’t do anything particularly, or even moderately, creative but let the glorious seasonal tastes stand on their own):

Bruschetta (sliced toasted baguette topped with fresh seeded and chopped Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cut into small cubes, fresh chopped basil, olive oil, salt and pepper)
Salmon filets grilled over charcoal
Cantaloupe salsa (finely chopped melon, red onion, fresh cilantro, salt)
Oven-roasted asparagus
Rice pilaf (rice, orzo, minced onion, garlic, turmeric, salt)
Strawberry tart (prepared Bavarian sponge cake base, called Tortenboden in German; simple custard, halved fresh strawberries)

Our guests brought three bottles of wine: a white wine labeled Cheverny from the Loire region of France (a sauvignon blanc, perhaps, the label didn’t specify) and two reds, a Côtes du Rhône from L. Guigal and a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from Panacea. The Guigal was quite a coincidence that our guests could not have known. This wine-making family owns vineyards around Condrieu, where the viognier grape escaped virtual extinction. I was so impressed by the viognier story that I wrote a blog entry about it back in April. Last evening’s wine was labeled only Red Rhone Wine, but I love the notion that Condrieu is somewhere in its orbit. Amazingly, we did justice to the wines, finishing one bottle and almost finishing other two in the course of a leisurely evening.

Home garden-grown tomatoes, basil and cilantro will abound until the first frost. Asparagus, melons and strawberries will come from increasingly distant places, and after the wild-caught coho salmon comnes in, fresh Alaskan salmon will be finished for the year. So let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

Viognier Wines Explained

A few years ago, I noticed that wines labeled viognier started appearing on wine lists and in retail stores. I hadn’t heard of it, but tried it. Over time, I have drunk and liked much of it, but until today, when I was again enlightened by the New York Times, I really knew nothing about it. In an article called “The Comeback of Condrieus is the Story of a Singular Grape,” wine writer Eric Asimov reports, “Today, Condrieu is a fashionable wine, valued around the world for its lush, voluptuous flavors and rich, seductive texture. Yet only 35 years ago the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Valley was barely alive, with only about 30 acres of grapes to its name.”

The viognier grape and the wine made from it in Condrieu were kept on life support largely by Domaine Georges Vernay, whose thin soil and steep, terraced slopes (right) are ideal for this grape. The once out-of-favor white wine was really resuscitated by New World wineries’ discovery of the viognier, the local grape. Grapes sourced from that terroir were sought by California and other winemakers, which in turned spurred the popularity of the original. Now the 30 acres planted with viognier vines in the early 1970s in Condrieu have increased tenfold to some 300 acres.

Asimov reported that “Condrieu producers, like their New World counterparts, are experimenting with several different styles. As with California chardonnay, you are as likely to find a rich, viscous wine framed with new oak as you are a bone dry, crisp, minerally wineI am not a fan of obvious new oak flavors in any wine, but in Condrieu new oak integrates beautifully with the viognier’s tropical flavors.”

In this country, California and Washington State vineyards are growing viognier grapes. Asimov further wrote that “The grape itself is said to be difficult and capricious, and yields must be kept low, particularly because so many vines are young, planted in the last 10 years and prone to overcropping. Growers do not consider viognier vines to be in their prime until they are 25 years old. The combination of young vines and high yields can result in thin and shallow wines.”

Asimov, Times food writer Florence Fabricant, Bernard Sun, beverage director for Jean-Georges Management, and Jean-Luc Le Dû, owner of Le Dû’s Wines in New York, tasted French and US viogniers. I believe that I have had only domestic viogniers, and Asimov’s explanation of the patience required to produce a top wine from that grape might explain why I liked some a lot better than others.

Cooking Wine? Cheap Is Fine!

I’m not one to take issue with the late, great Julia Child — except I’ve never been able to buy into her dictum, “If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.” I have never had the heart to “waste” a fairly expensive wine by cooking with it, especially for recipes using a substantial quantity of wine. Julia’s own Boeuf Bourguinon and Coq au Vin recipes for four to six people call for three cups of “young, full-bodied red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Chianti.”

When I made Coq au Vin last week, I used some nouveau Beaujolais left over from Thanksgiving (!!!) that wasn’t great to drink then and certainly couldn’t have improved with age. (Disclaimer: One of our guests had brought the Georges Duboeuf liter-and-half nouveau. Only in the best year would this near-jug wine be a good risk for a holiday dinner for a dozen guests, and it was one that we probably would not have chosen.) Still, 3 1/2 months later, no one noticed or complained about the Coq au Vin due to the inferior wine that I used.

Therefore, thank you, Julia Moskin, New York Times food section staff writer, for “It Boils Down to This: Cheap Wine Works Fine” in today’s paper. She laid to rest what she calls “the new gospel: Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” She cooked four dishes with three kinds of wine from very inexpensive to very dear. Her conclusion validates my long-time contention that wine doesn’t need to be divinely drinkable in order to work admirably in a recipe.

She wrote, “Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.

“It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.”

The rule of thumb for recipe success seems to be to use red, white, dry, sweet or whatever called for in a particular dish but not to worry too much about the price tag on the bottle. It’s one I’ve always used.

Cornbelt or Winebelt — and Colorado Too

I was intrigued by a piece in today’s New York Times about the small, but mushrooming, wine industry in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest. Intriguingly titled “Iowa Finds Itself Deep in the Heart of Wine Country,” it reported on Iowa and other mid-country farmers who have discovered the pleasure and profits in growing grapes and making wine.

The lead reads:
“Stan Olson used to grow corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres here on the Raccoon River west of Des Moines, but no more. These days, Mr. Olson’s empty grain silo is useful only as a rustic image to promote his new vineyard and tasting room.

“Mr. Olson’s Penoach Winery is a tiny operation in a red barn behind his family’s farmhouse, next to a small grape nursery. It does not have much of a customer base yet or any vintages that go beyond last year, but Mr. Olson is thrilled nonetheless.

“ ‘I will make as much selling grape plants off of two acres this year as I did many years on 1,000 acres of corn and raising 3,000 head of hogs,’ ” said Mr. Olson, who makes much of his money selling cuttings to other aspiring vintners.”

In the wine business, production from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa is collectively known as “New World Wines.” Iowa and neighboring states might have the newest of the new, but they are not all that far behind Colorado’s burgeoning wine industry. When I moved here in 1988, the first vineyard had just planted its first grapes. Now, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, there are upwards of 60 wineries here.

As in the Midwest, Colorado vineyards have planted hybrid grapes that can take cold weather. Most of Colorado’s vineyards are in the Grand Junction area, with wineries scattered throughout the state. BookCliff, for instance, has its vineyard near Palisade, just east of Grand Junction, but its winery and tasting room are in Boulder. The beautiful Winery at Holy Cross Abbey grows some grapes on the grounds of the former Benedictine monastery in Canon City, west of Pueblo, where the winery is located and also buys grapes from other growers. Due to a change in state law, multi-winery tasting rooms are now legal. When you come across one while traveling through Colorado, stop in and sample some of the state’s wines. You might be surprised at their quality.