Monday, January 29, 2007

The Great Champagne Flute Caper

The plan was simple. A few dozen oysters, some champagne, bury our noses in couple of good novels – a much deserved, lazy Saturday afternoon. Simple, really simple. Frank volunteered to do battle with the holiday traffic and forage for our living room picnic.

He’s gone a long, long time.

F: Hi honey, traffic sucked. Oh and I made a bit of a detour to the wine store – and a couple of other stops.

Uh oh! Frank’s detours usually involve some new gadget, obscure culinary ingredient, or a vintage bottle for the collection. Still, grasped tightly in hand are a bag from our favourite oyster shop, a bottle that looks remarkably like champagne, and a box marked Riedel.

F: Had to improvise on the champagne – must have been a run on the one we wanted. Found some great new flutes though.

S: What on earth has he done now? New flutes might be nice. And what champagne did you find, dear? There’s something he isn’t telling me, I can smell it.

F: Seaview Brut. Better ratings than the $35 Vu Cliquoit and way less expensive – just over $12 actually. Got a bit carried away on the glasses, but oh well.

S: The glasses look a little… weird. He bought us a $12 bottle of champagne after the week we’ve both had? So how much did they cost?

F: Forty-five dollars. Riedel’s Vinum Extreme. They’re supposed to enhance the taste of the champagne.

S: Now let me get this straight. You just bought us a $12 bottle of champagne and spent $45 on champagne glasses that look like a lesson in geometry? This time, I’m afraid he’s lost it totally.

F: Well actually it was $45 each.

S: So you’re saying there’s something fundamentally wrong with our $5 flutes? Not to mention there isn’t another square inch of free storage space anywhere in the kitchen or the dining room.

F: Apparently, but look at it as a taste test, an adventure. They’d better be good or I’m going to have a heck of a time justifying $90. Ready for some oysters?

The shucking board, lemon, and oyster knives magically appear on the kitchen counter. There’s the comforting sound of a bottle being placed in a bucket of ice, followed almost immediately by the rhythmic sound of shells cracking open.

S: And exactly why are these supposed to be so much better than what we always use? I can’t wait to hear this one.

F: Technological breakthrough. Apparently, Riedel spent thousands on research so the champagne hits your tongue in exactly the right spot. Mind you, I like Robert Parker’s explanation better – it’s flat out hedonistic indulgence.

S: Okay, so hedonistic is good. It better be at this price.

Twenty minutes later, our urban picnic is on the coffee table – three types of oysters, a $12 bottle of champagne, and $90 worth of champagne glasses. Frank pours taste testers into the two new additions to the glass collection and another into the cheapie flutes we’ve used successfully for parties, impromptu visits, and for no special reason special evenings.

S: Hmm. Well I have to admit the bubbles look different – more concentrated in the center of the glass and stronger.

F: Better nose too. Check it out. Ha, she’ll have to admit the nose is better too.

S: Okay, so you’re right – better nose. All right, tasting time.

There’s a lengthy pause. We stare at each other in silence.

F: Crisper on the palette, longer finish.

We alternate sips from each glass. No question – better nose, better finish, more crispness. It’s just plain better out of the Reidel. And the bubbles are still strong. Neither of us mentions that the contents of the $5 regulars are both virtually flat already. Neither one will ever admit to being the one who discreetly removed the $5 flutes.

S: And there are how many different glasses in this line?

F: Oh a bunch. You know, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cab, New World Chardonnay, Old World Chardonnay…

S: Hold it, there are two different glasses depending on where the Chardonnay is made? And exactly how many is “a bunch?” Do I really want to know?

F: About 30. Ready for more oysters?

Over the next two months, the wine glass collections mysteriously grew by a factor of about 500%. We even discovered the correct glass for Tempranillo, a varietal we were only just beginning to love. Eight months later, while entertaining an enthusiastic if eclectic group of friends, we heard a crash from the general direction of the kitchen. As we swept up the remains of the now infamous Reidel Vinum Extreme Champagne flutes, we exchanged glances. No need to say anything, the next day’s schedule would include a trip to the stemware store.

FYI: two of our favourite Vancouver spots to shop for Reidel (and a whole bunch of other interesting stuff) are Puddifoot’s in Vancouver and Herzog Crystal in West Vancouver. Surprisingly, neither have a web page so you’ll just have to visit in person.

Susan Note:

This story actually occurred at the beginning of our serious exploration of the world of wines. Today, although Frank still uses the ISO glasses for official tastings, neither of us think twice about expanding the Reidel collection. To the on-going amusement of many of our friends, we’ve also convinced our favourite pub to let us tuck a matched pair of red and white Reidel glasses behind the bar. What can we say? The wine there just tastes better now.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Frank Issues a Reader Challenge

The Challenge:

Help! The Canadian government is about to grudgingly let me bring two bottles of wine into Canada duty free. I have a one-week business trip coming up in New Orleans, and under the rules of the game, that means I get to bring two bottles of wine home. Now while I could wish for more latitude – two bottles does seem rather a pittance – I’m not about to turn down the opportunity.

But here’s the quandary. In BC we have a choice – if you can call it that – of about 1,600 different wines. Suddenly I’m going to have access to what – 5,000? 7,000? 10,000? There are more than 4,000 wineries in the United States. If each made only two wines – and certainly it’s a rare winery that makes only two wines – suddenly my available choices have more than quadrupled. Add in all the import vintages and who knows just how big the selection I’ll be surrounded by really is. In fact, I did some quick Internet research – no one seems to know exactly how many different wines actually are available in the US.

But I can only have two. So which two do I choose?

Perhaps something French – Bordeaux or a Burgundy Grand Cru that never see shelf space at the LCB? How about a Champagne from one of the small, boutique houses? What about one of the much-touted Pinot Noirs from Oregon or a big, fat, in your face Napa Cab cult wine? Maybe one of my faves, an Italian Amarone from a producer we’ve never tried? Should it be a Parker big point wine or an unrated but potentially knock-your-socks-off discovery?

And as the quandary about the actual wines gets bigger, I realize some moral aspects are entering the equation. Two bottles of something different, maybe never to be seen at home in BC again. Should I be greedy or do I share the bonanza?

So readers, here’s your chance to help us pick which two wines they should be. Think: desert island, two bottles of wine. Send us your suggestions, comments, and moral dilemma problem solving expertise. We’ll let you know in February how it shakes down and post some tasting notes too.

Susan’s Note:

My mind boggles at the selection, but not so much that I’m not already polishing the wine glasses. And two of them are for the Amarone – not that I’m hinting, well not much.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Amarone Meets Rossini and Callas

Frank’s Food and Wine Pairing

I’ve always wondered why Rossini retired at the height of his fame. One day he was at the peak of popularity, the next he vanished from the musical scene of his day.

The story goes that he decided to quit writing operas so he could go home, eat, and enjoy the company of the fairer sex. It’s also said he claimed to be basically lazy and simply didn’t want to work any more.

What does all this have to do with wine? The other day I was going through a cookbook and came across some recipes attributed to Rossini. Browsing through them I could see why he may have had a weight problem. The combinations where intriguing, but all were food and wine pairing dilemmas. Apparently Rossini liked to have everything at once – meat, cheese, wines, spices. I decided to create Filletto alla Rossini – an utterly decadent combination of fillet of beef, truffles, sauces, and Marsala (recipe follows).

The wine I chose may be a little over the top, but I was look for something to stand up to the richness of this dish. It needed to be a big wine and, in keeping with the spirit of the recipe, it needed to be an Italian red.

Filletto alla Rossini is a complex creation and the debate was which part of the dish to match or complement. The mushrooms and truffles would need a little earthy note, the braised meat required some tannins, and the sauces are all over the place. Ultimately, the wine I chose was a Masi Amarone Costasera 1997. Besides, if the wine didn’t go well with the food, it would be certainly wonderful for sipping after the meal.

How did it work? The dish is absolutely decadent – so much contrast but as a whole quite wonderful. The sauces really do work with each other, the morels and truffles bring totally different flavours and textures but blend together well.

The wine was surprising. With the food, it became velvety in the mouth and the little bit of earthiness came much more forward. The hint of botrytis, barely noticeable when sipping this wine on it own, came right out with the truffles and mushrooms. There is also a minor amount of sweetness to the wine which added a pleasing dimension to the dish.

This food and wine pairing definitely worked. Actually, it more than worked – it is a great combination. Sip after sip and bite after delectable bite, both changed to bring out the best and the most delicate nuances of the other throughout the meal.

So where does Maria Callas fit into all this? Well, since I was eating a Rossini dish, naturally there was opera playing in the background. I had just finished dinner and was enjoying the feeling of contentment that comes after a good meal enjoyed over a long period of time when I heard the unmistakable voice of Callas coming from the speakers. Un Voce Poco Fa from the Barber of Seville. Another perfect pairing – the wine and singer both with good mid-palette and exceptionally long finish at the end. The Italians call Amarone a meditative wine, and Callas’ crystal clear tones are notes to contemplate. The food, the wine, the music – all stellar. We will have to do this one again.

Susan’s note:

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to suppose what happened when I discovered Frank had actually embarked on this gastronomic adventure without sharing. The words were a little “stronger” than “oh, you did this on your own did you?” I make no pretense my ability to whip up some epicurean fantasy is even close to Frank’s, but I have absolutely no remorse about savouring them – heck, I’ll even do the dishes.

While I haven’t yet convinced him to spend another afternoon preparing Filletto alla Rossini for two, we did soon spend a delicious evening indulging in a second bottle of Masi Costasera Amarone Classico 1997. It was everything he said it was and more – filled with flavour, rich, smooth, and ultimately satisfying. And as much as I share a passion for Rossini operas, I can’t help thinking the great composer was onto something when he decided to retire and spend the rest of his days enjoying such life pleasures as good wine, good food, and good company.

PS: Frank’s also offered to try out another wine and Rossini recipe pairing for two. Sometimes guilt works wonders.

The Wine:
Masi Costasera Amarone Classico 1997
Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC
Grape varieties 70% Corvina, 25%Rondinella, 5% Molinara
Alcohol 15%

The Meal:Filletto alla Rossini

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
8 tsp/40 g butter
4 fillet steaks
1 tbsp flour
1/2 glass Marsala
Salt and pepper to taste
4 slices Gruyere cheese
4 generous slices Prosciutto de Parma
1/2 cup B├ęchamel Sauce
4 slices bread
Truffles (preferably white)
Morel mushrooms

Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy pan and fry the steaks. When the meat starts to brown, dust with flour, sprinkle with the Marsala, and boil until the sauce thickens. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Braise the meat until it has absorbed the liquid, then remove and place in a flameproof dish. Lay the slices of cheese and ham on top of the meat, pour the B├ęchamel sauce over top, and bake for a few minutes in a preheated oven at 400°F (200°C) until the top is brown. Meanwhile add morels to the Marsala sauce. Fry the slices of bread in butter, surround with the Marsala sauce and Morels, and place the fillets on them. Top with sliced truffles. Enjoy!

From Culinaria Italy
ISBN: 3-8331-1133-X

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Perils and Problems of Points

Frank’s Rant:

I am getting very tired of the whole points thing with wine. Do we really need to grade our wine the same way we mark a high school exam? I have yet to find an art gallery that ranks their Monets from one to 100. Rossini arias, as far as I know, have never been assessed as 95 or 96 points. And what exactly is the difference between 89 and 90 points – other than the fact one will likely carry a higher price tag.

When you look at the shelf talkers hanging in front of the wine bins in your local liquor store, what do the numbers actually tell you? Is the bottle in front of you a fruit bomb or something elegant and silky? What food does it go with?

Points don’t tell you whether or not a wine is typical of the region. Typicite or tipicta – depending on whether you are French or Italian – is subjective I will admit, but it does tell me if that Sancerre is really typical of the area. Points don’t.

Nor does the point system give you any indication whether the wine is correctly made for the varietal. At a tasting the other night, we had a Viognier with so much oak in it, none of the fruit and aromas associated with that varietal survived. No peaches, no elusive bouquet. We would have been disappointed if we’d gone out and bought the wine. Yet someone gave it a high mark and thought it was a good one.

Subjective yes. But enjoying wine is, after all, highly subjective. What I like and what I can taste or smell is going to be different than the person sitting next to me. Susan and I can taste a wine and agree it is clear, has a clean nose, perhaps that it ruby rather than garnet. We can agree it is a tannic wine. We can go through a WSET tasting chart or a Davis sheet and give it no points or almost a perfect score. We can agree on all of this, and one of us may hate the wine while the other will love it.

For me, a premier cru Chablis or a Condrieu is bliss. For Susan, the more tannic a red wine is, the better. At a tasting, she can tell me “you won’t like this one.” But if it is well made with no faults, we might both give it a high score – I just don’t like it and she does.

I also sometimes wonder how wines are awarded their points in the glossy wine magazines. Rather too often, it seems big ads equate to big points – although I could be wrong on this one.

To me, assigning a number to a wine and adding tasting note of two lines or less tell you absolutely nothing. The only thing points do is help sell wines at the store level – you don’t need to know anything about wines and neither does the store. Many good wines will be passed by because they are from an area not covered by a critic and so have no magical point ranking.

Mind you, now that I think about it, perhaps this is a good thing. Some of my favorites may remain fairly priced and available. Stay away from the Loire Valley you wine critics, and all will be well.