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.

Two Crested Butte Classics Change Hands

I’ve returned from Crested Butte and the North American SnowSports Journalists Association annual meeting. While there, I learned that two classic Crested Butte restaurants have new owners. Mac Bailey hit upon a successful all-you-can-eat formula of comfort food before that had a name. He had been dishing up skillet-fried chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, biscuits with honey butter, and the best cole slaw around since 1983. He has now sold The Slogar Bar & Restaurant to CJay Clark and Megan Barney, who aren’t messing with a winner and are keeping the old recipes and retaining the same old hospitality and friendly informality.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the exquisite little fine-dining establishment called Soupcon (right) has also changed hands. I believe that it was also owned by Mac Bailey, but executive chef Scott Greene, who was at the helm in the kitchen, put his own distinctive culinary stamp on it. Quaint and charming, Soupcon was and remains the stylistic opposite of The Slogar. Greene has relocated to warmer climes, specifically to Boca Raton, FL, leaving Soupcon in the best of hands. The new owner/chef is Jason Vernon, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

While Slogar’s menu remains unaltered, some things have changed at Soupcon and others not at all. Chef Jason changes Soupcon’s menu every three weeks or so. His sophisticated and refined cuisine relies on seasonal and especially local ingredients where possible. The achingly charming restaurant looks as it always has, with small tables decked out in crisp white linens and fresh flowers, and bentwood chairs that fit perfectly into this old log cabin in a quiet alley. Fine foods and wines to match remain the hallmark in this finest of all fine-dining restaurants in Crested Butte.

The Good Egg

Instead of the standard gas-fired grill, charcoal-burning kettle or even hibachi, my husband had been considering a Big Green Egg, a modern American rendition of an ancient Kamado cooker from Japan. Our brother-in-law, who grew up in a military family and lived in Japan, swears by it. It gets rave reviews on foodie message boards. With trepidation because it is expensive, I bought one for my husband for Christmas, and we finally tried it last night. Wow! We made simple chicken breasts that turned out perfectly: cooked through, still moist inside and, perhaps best of all, bearing some of that delicious char-grilled flavor that I hadn’t gotten in years.

Made of heavy, kiln-fired ceramic glazed in the green that gives it its trade name, the big Green Egg uses natural charcoal, lights without liquid starter and heats to cooking temperature in about 10 minutes. Adjusting top and bottom dampers controls the temperature, which is easily seen on an external gauge that shows both Fahrenheit and Celsius. The company sayd temperature accuracy is shown within within two degrees from 50 to 750 degrees. Closing both dampers kills the flame.

So far, we have only tried one cooking method and one food, but it seems that the Big Green Egg is a grill and a smoker and even an oven. Meats, seafood, veggies and pizza can reportedly all be cooked on (or should I write “in”?) a Big Green Egg.

Easy Sausage and Peppers

King Soopers is having a sale on bell peppers — red, yellow and green all 10 for $10. It’s unusual, around here anyway, for the yellow and red to be as inexpensive as the green. I bought a bunch, roasted some and still had a few left over. Having spent my formative years in the Northeast, that Italian-American staple of Sausage and Peppers was the first (and perhaps only) dish that popped into my mind. I’m not sure why I specified “easy” on this post, because this is a dish that is always easy, whether the sausage is cooked whole and then cut into pieces or cut into pieces and then cooked, and whether it is made with one, two or three colors of bell pepper. Here’s the way I prepared them.

Sausage and Peppers

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces (I used sweet turkey sausage, but pork sausage or hot sausage would work well too)
1 each green, yellow and red pepper bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in large, heavy skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until golden, about 1 minute. Mix in sausage and cook until browned, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add peppers and onion, and cook until almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Stir in in tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Turn down the heat to low, cover and simmer 25 minutes. Uncover and cook for another minutes.

I served the Sausage and Peppers with penne (tubular pasta), cooked al dente, with freshly Parmesan on the side. Two of us ate generous portions, and there’s enough left for two more meals.

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.

Weeknight Company Menu

We had friends over yesterday evening to celebrate a pair of birthdays, but when it came to dinner preparation, I really had just about three hours to cook, polish a few pieces of tarnished silver and set the table. Here’s what I made.

Hors d’Oeuvres (with wine or a cocktail)
Crackers and three cheeses

Soup
“My Mom’s 15 Minute Tomato and Bean Soup” from 2, 4, 6, 8 – Great Meals for Couples or Crowds by Rachael Ray. The soup indeed cooks in just 15 minutes, though I let it go longer, but that does not count the time necessary to chop or slice the garlic, onions, carrots, celery and zucchini — other ingredients are good-quality canned tomato products and beans.

Entree (with red or white wine)
Coq au Vin – I read several recipes and winged it. Recipe follows.
Saffron Rice made with good-quality prepared stock
Buttered Baby Carrots

Dessert (with champagne and coffee)
Fresh Berry Tart. Recipe follows.

Recipes:

Coq au Vin
Coat six chicken thighs lightly in flour and saute in butter and oil over medium-high heat until well browned. Meanwhile, cook four or five good bacon strips, drain on paper towels and cool. Remove chicken from saute pan. Add frozen pearl onions in an amount to taste. Saute until they begin to brown. Remove onions and drain most of the fat from the pan. Deglaze pan with about 1 1/2 cup red wine. Add about 1 cup chicken stock. Return chicken and onions to pan. Salt, pepper and thyme to taste. Add about 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms or mushroom caps and crumbled bacon. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce thickens. In a heavy saute pan with a tight-fitting lid, this will keep warm for a couple of hours, requiring only a quick reheating.

Fresh Berry Tart
Because I didn’t have time to bake, I bought a Tortenboden, available at King Soopers and labeled Imported Bavarian Sponge Cake. The importer is World Finer Foods. I whipped half a pint of heavy cream, added some confectioner’s sugar and a splash of rum,, then spread it in the prepared cake base and topped it with fresh raspberries and strawberries.

Here’s an oddball fitness note, especially for anyone trying to take the current medical recommendation of at least 10,000 steps a day. I bought a pedometer some months back and wore it while cooking, just for the heck of it. I don’t have a particularly large kitchen (in fact, it is quite modest in size), but preparing the meal, setting the table and making three laundry trips downstairs required just over 4,500 steps — not aerobic by any stretch, but steps nonetheless.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.