October 23, 2013

Joe Appel on Wine: When restaurants are passionate about their wine lists, it’s cause for celebration

And when these Portland restaurateurs point to their favorites, it’s time to take note.

Recently I wrote critically about the failure of many Portland restaurants to devote as much attention, energy and creativity to their wine lists as they devote to their food. Imaginative chefs here, whose successful commitment to food experimentation can run the gamut from reinterpretations of classic cuisine to considered adventures in postmodernism, have the opportunity to see that the beverages that accompany their food match its character, diversity and quality.

The opportunity is often missed. When it’s not, though, that’s a cause for celebration. I recently asked the people who preside over some of the city’s more original wine programs to describe a few wines they personally feel passionate about. I asked for those wines that sort of “sleep” on the menu: there primarily because a wine buyer felt enough love for the wine to take a chance on it, despite the uphill battle it faced with diners due to unfamiliar grape name, region, or characteristics in the glass.

I asked, “What would you say to a diner to convince them to take a chance on this wine?” One might adore a Barbaresco, Burgundy or Brunello, but those sorts of names put the bottles in “auto-sell” mode, rather than “hand-sell.” I wanted to hear about hand-sells.

Below are excerpts of the responses, followed by my annotation. Think of them as a print version of a sommelier, and an invitation to take a bit of a gamble the next time you dine out or visit a wine shop. (Prices are suggested-retail.)

Bar Lola’s co-owner and general manager, Stella Hernandez, and I have rather closely aligned tastes. She loves the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2011 ($22, Pine State), as does everyone in his or her right mind. I’ve written about it previously, and while it has something of a longstanding hidden fan base in these parts, it’s deserves more adoration.

Hernandez: “The cool climate in Alto Adige, Italy, makes whites shine. The Kerner (a cross between Schiava Grossa and Riesling) is aromatic...full of beautiful fruit notes – apples, peaches – and white flowers. It’s a rich wine, but there’s acidity to balance it all out. There’s also a pleasant note of almondy bitterness to balance out the fruit.”

Appel: It’s not just an aromatic wine, but exotically so, and spicy. I think of it above all as exciting, not at all a “background” sort of wine. But for all its scintillation, it is balanced, balanced, balanced – and therefore exceptionally suited to a wide array of foods, holding up to more exuberantly seasoned dishes while courteous to more subtle ones.

Hernandez also loves Austrian wines, and bless her for putting the Prieler Blaufrankisch Ried Johanneshohe 2009 ($22, SoPo) on the list. About it, she writes, “Blaufrankisch: the name alone could scare people away….People often think of Austria for whites, but I love the reds, too. St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch especially, and I have both on the menu. This particular one is from a small 20-hectare weingut (winegrower), run by two generations of the Prieler family. Blaufrankisch can start out like a Burgundy with lots of lovely berry notes but it has a spiciness and acidity that make it unique. It is a great, versatile food wine.”

Appel: “Uh, what she said. I think some people shy away from Austrian reds out of a mistaken assumption that they’ll be thin and light-toned. Blaufrankisch makes deep, rich, savory wine, and I honestly can’t think of a greater red wine value in the world today, considered in a sort of depth-to-price ratio. The Prieler is especially hearty though not heavy, juicy without being jammy, sumptuous but sleek, clear but serious.

(Continued on page 2)

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